Tracing back to the time when solar panel was invented will help us appreciate their current role in our lives.
The creation of solar panels is an interesting part of the history of modern technology.
Nowadays, the world production of electricity relies on falling water, wind, or steam, (generated in nuclear reactors), which generate electricity in all urban and most rural areas around the world.
However, electricity generation is not available everywhere and at all times, especially in the developing world that lags behind the technologically advanced countries.
Besides, the energy crisis always poses a danger, especially with the depletion of fossil fuels.
It’s difficult to imagine our lives without electricity.
Because of its importance, people have been trying to find ways to make it accessible everywhere and have been looking for other sources that would allow us to power any electric device.
Eventually, someone realized that our Sun produces limitless energy, enough to keep Earth supplied with it for billions of years.
That is how the history of solar energy begins.
Transition to Solar Energy
Nowadays, the growing solar industry focuses on advancing solar cell technology for solar energy to replace traditional energy sources.
We are living in a time when solar cells reach a new, revolutionary level.
Solar cell power allows people to gain access to a virtually inexhaustible source of energy by converting direct sunlight and solar radiation into power
Solar panels have opened a way to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.
Amazingly, you can find simple alarm clocks, torch lights, watches, laptops, racing cars, which all function by converting solar radiation into electrical impulses that power these appliances.
Powerful solar farms work effectively in many countries.
So let’s find out when the solar panel was invented, how does it work, and what is its future.
How Were Solar Panels Invented?
Solar energy is not new to humanity.
If we turn to the history of solar energy, we will discover that people successfully used the power of the sun as far as in the 7th century BC.
A modern solar cell is the second of humanity’s attempt to harness the boundless energy of the sun.
The first was a solar water heater.
Initially, water, heated to the boiling point under the sun produced electricity in the first solar collectors (solar thermal power plants).
Therefore, these heaters were the first solar systems or the first solar technology that used the power of the sun rays to heat the water and power steam turbines.
Besides, archeologists discovered that ancient people knew how to convert sunlight into energy.
Archeologists found solar batteries that allegedly, directly produced an electric current.
How they exactly worked and what they were used for remains unclear.
Nonetheless, the history of solar energy is much longer than most people think.
18th Century Beginnings
Starting from the 18th century, began the study of concave mirrors and their ability to focus sunlight.
This made possible the ignition of trees at a considerable distance from the source.
In 1767, Horace de Saussure, a Swiss physicist, invented the first solar oven.
He couldn’t imagine that his invention would help people prepare their dinner two and a half centuries into the future.
Already in the 19th century, French engineers used a steam installation powered by solar energy to print books.
The solar cell efficiency of these first solar-powered machines was not as high as it is today but it showed that there’s a future in solar development.
The challenge was not only in how to produce efficient energy with no loss but also how to store electricity and use it when needed.
A solar cell that’s capable of collecting and storing the sun’s energy to power appliances and charge batteries is the most significant discovery, as it has made the production of electricity possible.
In 1839, in France, a young physicist, Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel (known as Edmond Becquerel), the son of Antoine César Becquerel, who was a pioneer in the study of electric and luminescent phenomena, presented a chemical battery that he had created.
Edmond Becquerel discovered a solar energy converting apparatus, the photovoltaic effect.
The photovoltaic effect explains how sunlight generates electric impulses.
However, the first solar photovoltaic cell only had 1 percent efficiency.
That is, the photovoltaic effect, in this case, wasn’t working very well, as the solar cell could only turn 1% of the sunlight into electricity.
So, research and development continued.
In 1873, Willoughby Smith discovered the sensitivity of selenium to light.
William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day noted, in 1877, that selenium produces an electric current under the influence of light.
What Was the First Working Solar Panel?
In 1880, Charles Fritts created selenium cells and the first solar array that was even installed on a New York City rooftop.
Fritts used a thin layer of gold to plate selenium and produce the first solar cell that could harvest the sun’s energy when exposed to light directly.
This solar panel efficiency was only 1%.
Nonetheless, Fritts thought that his invention was revolutionary.
He understood the benefits of solar energy and predicted that solar panels would replace existing power stations.
Still, the low performance of this first solar cell and the battery it charged prevented its acceptance.
Soon, everyone forgot about his invention.
Nonetheless, a Russian physicist, Alexander Stoletov, also studied photoelectric processes.
He established an empirical connection between the magnitude of the photocurrent and the light flux falling on the sample.
In 1888, Stoletov began research on the photoelectric effect, discovered the year before by Heinrich Hertz, who realized that ultraviolet light creates more power than visible light.
These studies lasted two years and brought the scientist world fame.
Stoletov’s manuscripts preserved the installation scheme.
Besides, there was the prototype of the solar cell on which he conducted his experiments.
The central part of the installation was a capacitor consisting of a metal grid – the anode, and a flat metal disk – the cathode.
When the cathode was illuminated with voltaic arc light, a galvanometer detected the presence of current in the circuit.
Now, we are approaching the modern age in the history of solar energy.
What Was Einstein’s Contribution to the Development of Solar Panels?
Interestingly, the famous scientist Albert Einstein was intrigued by the development of solar batteries.
In 1905, he scientifically explained the essence of the photoelectric effect.
He clarified the dependence of the speed of knocked electrons on the frequency of light.
Consequently, researchers hoped for the creation of solar cells with higher performance.
Einstein’s achievement was crucial; when Einstein finally won the Nobel prize in physics in 1921, it wasn’t for relativity but for explaining the photoelectric effect.
Nonetheless, widespread solar cell manufacturing became possible after the Bell Telephone telecommunications company developed a practical silicon solar cell.
In 1954, an engineer, Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, a chemist, and Gordon Pearson, a physicist, who worked for the Bell Laboratories, created a silicon solar cell.
In those years, the Bell Labs in New Jersey was one of the best research centers in the world.
Inevitably, Bell labs also had the best scientists at the time.
With their silicon solar cells, they managed to enhance the solar panel to 6 percent efficiency.
The price of energy produced with the help of these panels was $300 per 1 kW, which at that time could not compete with much cheaper fossil fuels.
None of the inventors thought about abandoning oil or protecting the environment.
Chapin tried to create power supplies for telephones installed in a remote areas.
Pearson and Fuller investigated the properties of semiconductors.
Many consider this event as a real discovery of PV technology because this was the first case when solar technology could activate an electrical device for a few hours daily.
In 1956, Western Electric company began selling licenses for its silicon photovoltaic technology.
But the excessively high cost of silicon photovoltaic cells kept them from widespread market saturation.
Real silicon purification is an extremely costly process.
Consequently, researchers tried other alternatives: compounds of copper, indium, gallium, and cadmium.
A huge part in the development of solar technology came in 1959 when Hoffman Electronics reached 10 percent efficiency. Very soon, in 1960, they achieved 14 percent efficiency, which pushed solar panels into the space program.
The 1973 oil crisis forced people to invest in solar cell research.
Dr. Elliot Berman, funded by the Exxon company, developed a cheaper solar panel.
Its price dropped from $100 per watt to $20.
Berman found that using polycrystals in solar panels was much cheaper than single crystals.
However, efficiency also suffered.
Even today, polycrystalline solar cells are cheaper, but also less efficient than single-crystal ones.
Solar panels were first used successfully in rural and remote cities as a power source for the telephone system.
They allowed the generation of electricity near the place where it’s consumed.
This, consequently, eliminated the need to distribute and transport electricity over long distances to remote areas.
The First Solar Residence
In 1973, the University of Delaware took up building the first solar building, called “Solar One.”
Technically, it was very complicated, as the system worked on the composite equipment, which consisted of solar thermal and solar PV power.
People used Thermal energy for heating and cooling the building, as well as for heating water for domestic use.
Electricity was obtained using cadmium sulfide-based solar cells.
The power, which came from solar cells, was stored in lead car batteries and used for lighting and other purposes, where it was possible to use 115V DC.
It was also the first example of BIPV (building-integrated photovoltaics).
It didn’t use solar panels but instead had solar integrated into the roof, similar to the idea of Tesla’s new roof product.
The First Solar Power Stations
Arco Solar Inc. constructed the first solar park, the foundation of a solar power plant, in Hesperia, California, in 1982.
This solar power plant generated 1 MW or 1,000 kilowatts per hour when operating at full capacity.
This powered a 100-kilowatt light bulb for 10 hours.
In 1983, Arco Solar built a second solar park in Carrizo Plain, California.
At that time, it was the most extensive collection of solar panels in the world.
It consists of 100,000 batteries that generated 5.2 megawatts at full power.
Although the solar power plant fell into disrepair due to the return of the popularity of oil, it has demonstrated the potential for industrial production of solar electricity.
Also, in 1982, the first solar power plant in Europe was installed on the roof of the Southern Switzerland Higher School (SUPSI).
Until now, this photoelectric generator produces electricity without interruptions and replacements of solar modules.
As the Swiss Solar Energy Union (SWISSOLAR) notes, solar power plants have no moving parts, which makes a long service life possible.
Laboratory tests show that it exceeds 30 years.
Now, we have practical experience confirming this.
Solar Panels in Astronautics & Aviation
Since 1958, NASA has been actively using solar panels.
Specialists of the agency installed them on satellites, space observatories, stations.
On March 17, 1958, the American satellite Vanguard 1 entered orbit.
It became the fourth satellite to ever do this and the first to use solar cells.
The Vanguard 1 was small enough to hold in one hand.
It was 1.5 kg and 16 cm in diameter, with antennas 76 cm (30 inches) across.
Altogether, Vanguard 1 had six silicon solar cells that generated about 1 Wt in total.
For comparison, the power of a typical modern solar photovoltaic system is several thousand times greater.
In other words, modern silicon solar cells can store and release much, much more energy.
Moreover, global solar power is hundreds of billions of times greater.
Later that year, Explorer III, Vanguard II, and Sputnik-3 were launched with PV-powered systems on board.
November 4, 1974, can be considered the date when the era of solar aviation started.
Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a solar power plant Sunrise I rose into the sky for the first time.
In 1980, American company AeroVironment created the first aircraft Solar Challenger.
It flew on solar energy covering a distance of 262 kilometers from Paris, France to Manston, England.
The first piloted aircraft Solar Impulse was invented in 2009.
Solar Impulse is capable of flying at the expense of the Sun’s energy indefinitely, storing energy in batteries, and gaining altitude during the day.
In 2016, Solar Impulse 2, the most potent solar-powered airplane today, completed a 16-month round-the-world flight.
Modern Solar Panels Manufacturers
Modern manufacturers offer solar panels with silicon solar cells and an efficiency of 15-20%.
These are equipped with solar trackers, whereby power output can be vastly increased.
China heads the top 10 solar-powered countries.
Thus, Chinese companies are leaders in the production of solar panels: Yingli Green Energy, Suntech, Trina Solar, JA Solar, Jinko Solar.
Also, other pretty popular companies are Sun Power (USA), First Solar (USA), Canadian Solar (Canada).
Costs for solar panels have decreased considerably over the past few decades, provoking a tide in buyers’ interest.
In 1956, solar panels cost about $300 per watt, and by 1975, that sum had decreased to $100 a watt.
Modern solar panel manufacturers suggest the price of $0.50 a watt.
Take note that since the year 1980, solar panel costs have fallen by 10% each year.
The plummeting cost of solar cells has vastly contributed to its growing popularity and the legitimacy of PV as a reliable energy source at present.
Solar PV electricity costs have dropped 73% after the year 2010, according to IRENA’s (the International Renewable Energy Agency) price analysis.
Moreover, solar PV costs are supposed to be cut in half by 2021.
The most reliable solar PV projects will be able to deliver electricity for an equivalent of 3 cents per kWh or less within the next two years.
The Forecast of Solar Energy
Solar energy has a long history during the past centuries, from the monitoring of the properties of light to finding new methods to transform it into electricity.
This technology demonstrates no signs of slowing down.
It’s advancing, actually, at an unprecedented speed.
Besides, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory continues its research, improvement, and commercialization of renewable energy sources and efficiency technologies.
According to the IEA (International Energy Association), renewable power capacity is set to grow by 50% between 2021 and 2024, thanks to solar PV.
It’s estimated that the quantity of solar power capacity, planned to be produced over the next few years, is equivalent to 70,000 new solar panels every hour.
Bloomberg’s New Energy Outlook 2021 says that wind and solar will provide 50% of electricity in 2050.
What’s the Difference Between Photoelectric and Photovoltaic Effect?
The photovoltaic effect refers to the generation of electricity in a substance when exposed to light.
The main distinction between the photoelectric effect and the photovoltaic effect is that, in the first, the electrons are emitted to open space while in the second the electrons penetrate a different material.
Of course, the history of solar technology, solar cells, and panels has a long way to go before fulfilling Charles Fritts’ dream of receiving free and affordable solar power around the world.
Undoubtedly, solar cells will have a huge role in the technological advancement of our civilization and will become one of the primary sources of renewable energy in the XXI century.
The future is in renewable energy sources that can generate electricity whenever and wherever needed.