Solar Energy: Then and Now

Shining A Light On The History of Solar Energy

Humans have harnessed solar energy from as early as the 7th century B.C., when ancient people used sunlight to light fires with magnifying glass materials. But solar cell technology wasn’t developed until centuries later, in 1839. This was when French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered a metal cell’s photovoltaic properties, noting that the cell produced more electricity when exposed to light. In 1883, nearly 50 years later, American inventor Charles Fritz created the first working solar cell made of selenium. 

Solar energy has come a long way since then. In 1954, developments towards the silicon solar cells we use today gained momentum. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, NASA used solar cells to power various spacecraft, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that they became viable for powering homes and businesses. During that time, an oil shortage brought on the need for other energy options, and solar rose in popularity. 

As solar cell technology gradually developed over the years, so did its efficiency and cost, thanks to technological advances with silicon and along the entire supply chain. Around the time when Becquerel first discovered his cell’s photovoltaic properties, early solar panels are estimated to have been at 1% efficiency, about $300 per watt. In the 1970s, solar technology cost around $20 per watt with around 14% efficiency. Fast forward to today, and solar panels average between 15-18% efficiency, costing as low as just over $.20 per watt. 

A Bright Future for Solar Energy

Solar energy has made leaps and bounds in the last decade alone, and it’s only going upwards from here. 

Among the latest developments is flexible thin-film technology, which contains light-absorbing layers about 350 times smaller than that of a standard silicon pane. Thin-film solar panels are incredibly lightweight, but generally need a lot of space for installation, making them an appealing option for buildings such as schools and corporations. What’s more, the emissions required to create a thin film cell and panel are much lower than traditional silicon. Thin-film isn’t competitive economically with traditional solar technologies just yet, but experts predict it will be in the future. 

Another promising solar development is what’s known as building-integrated photovoltaics. Unlike traditional solar panels, these blend in seamlessly with a building, whether on a roof, facade, canopy or skylight system. What’s more, scientists have developed advances towards other exciting technologies like solar-powered roads, wearable solar, solar water purifiers and even anti-solar panels (solar panels that continue generating electricity at night). 

The future for solar is bright, with continuing cost dips anticipated to increase the solar power produced in the U.S. by at least 700% by 2050. And with more exciting technologies in the works, we can only wait to see what’s in store for solar on the horizon.  

Flexible Thin-Film Technology

Light-absorbing layers about 350 times smaller than that of a standard silicon pane and incredibly lightweight.

Solar-Powered Roads

Generate clean energy and include LED bulbs that can light roads at night and capacity to melt snow during winter weather

Building-Integrated Photovoltaics

When applied at the time of building design can replace more traditional building materials and blend in seamlessly with the building

Anti-Solar Panels

Solar panels that continue generating electricity at night