The solar technology used today to convert the sun’s rays into electricity, known as photovoltaics or PV, actually goes back nearly 200 years.
“In 1839, French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered that certain materials would give off sparks of electricity when struck with sunlight,” explains the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Researchers soon discovered that this property, called the photoelectric effect, could be harnessed; the first photovoltaic (PV) cells, made of selenium, were created in the late 1800s. In the 1950s, scientists at Bell Labs revisited the technology and, using silicon, produced PV cells that could convert four percent of the energy in sunlight directly to electricity.”
In the 1960s, the aerospace industry used solar PV to power NASA spacecraft. When the energy crisis of the 1970s hit consumers with high electricity bills, homes and businesses began to install solar PV as well.
While the basic technology of PV is tried and true, solar panels have gotten much more efficient over the years. Just 15 years ago, the average solar cell converted about 10% of the light that hit its face into energy. Today, most solar panels convert between 15% and 20% of light into power. And according to researchers, that’s about ten times more efficient than plants are at converting sunlight into power through photosynthesis!
To find out more, read this fascinating article by author Will Reece about the history of solar.