A History of Solar Energy and Where It's Going

Climate change is real and we need to switch to green energy as soon as possible. As of 2021, the cheapest form of energy, green or otherwise, on the planet is solar. How did energy from the sun become the cheapest source of electricity on the planet? Keep reading to find out.

A long time ago, on a planet near, near by

In the 7th century BC, for the first recorded use of solar power by humans, someone lights a fire with a magnifying glass. In the 2nd century BC, Archimedes defends the island of Syracuse using bronze shields to reflect sunlight and torch enemy warships. In 20 AD, Chinese monks use mirrors and the sun to set their candles on fire.

Fast forward to 1767 when Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure creates the first solar collector. Solar collector is just a fancy name for an oven powered by the sun (created by a man with a fancy name). In 1839, a French scientist, Edmund Becquerel, discovers the photovoltaic effect while observing platinum electrodes in a conducting solution. In 1883 Charles Fritz creates the first solar cell wafers using selenium; these solar cells only have a 1% efficiency rate. 

1954 - the US Kickstarts Photovoltaic Technology

1954 marks an important point in solar energy history. Scientists at Bell labs begin creating photovoltaic technology, starting at 4% efficiency. In 1959 Hoffman Electronics creates commercially viable solar panels that can convert sunlight into electricity at a rate of 10%. In the 1960s, the space race encourages more research in solar panels as they are used to power spaceships. 

In 1968, the first solar plant was built in Italy. 1972 rolls around and the University of Delaware establishes an institute for studying solar power. In 1982 the US department of energy built their first solar plant, Solar One. In 1985, the University of New Wales in Australia achieves 20% efficiency conversion solar panels. In 1994, NREL achieves a 30% energy conversion rate. Solar Two follows Solar One in 1996, and conveniently operates until 1999, taking us up to the end of the century.

Solar Power in the 21st century

Climate change is on the public's mind as the 21st century rolls around, and this is what causes solar power to re-enter the public sphere. Germany spearheads the initiative by establishing fixed prices for green energy, encouraging the building of more solar farms in the year 2000. In 2004, China begins to produce solar panels on a mass scale. In 2005 solar energy costs $4-5 per watt. China's large scale building of solar panels flooded the market, forcing many companies to shut down or innovate to compete.

In 2008, solar power only made up 0.1% of our electricity. In 2018 solar energy makes up 2.3%, and companies bought double the amount of solar energy they did in 2017. Solar power is growing at a rate that has outpaced all predictions, even Greenpeace's optimistic position. Greenpeace predicted over 300,000 MW of installed power by 2020, in reality, we had over 400,000 MW installed by 2018. This growth rate has been driven by a drastic reduction in price - solar energy now costs a couple cents per watt. 

The (Near) Future of Solar Power

With the drop in price of storage technology like lithium ion batteries, solar power has become more stable. Not only is solar energy becoming more and more economically viable to produce, but the storage solutions around it are also becoming more innovative and affordable. While challenges still exist, solar is seeing adoption beyond our expectations. California reached over one million homes with solar panels in 2019. Solar farms as big as 400 MW are being built. 

With the advancement of technology in storage solutions such as lithium ion batteries, hydrogen, or molten salt, and internet of things technology like smart grids, solar power will become more and more alluring in the future. It is already cheaper to start new solar energy farms than coal plants. Solar energy is becoming more popular, now would be a smart time to invest. Click here to learn more about our initiative to build 50,000 MW worth of solar farms in America by 2030.