By Will Reece
With the recent rise in energy costs many people have been looking to alternative sources of energy. One of the greatest energy sources (our sun) is readily available for the taking. We just need to be able to harness its power. Below is a brief history of how solar power came to be.
The history of photovoltaic energy (aka. solar cells) started way back in 1876. William Grylls Adams along with a student of his, Richard Day, discovered that when selenium was exposed to light, it produced electricity. An electricity expert, Werner von Siemens, stated that the discovery was “scientifically of the most far-reaching importance”. The selenium cells were not efficient, but it was proved that light, without heat or moving parts, could be converted into electricity.
Scientist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) wrote a Nobel Prize-winning paper in 1905 which explained how the photoelectric effect worked. Einstein’s theories formed the cornerstone of further development of the technology. Even though effective generation from solar panels would not come about for another 50 years, there were solar panel pioneers installing solar heating systems in the early 1900’s.
In 1953, Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson, and Daryl Chapin, discovered the silicon solar cell. This cell actually produced enough electricity and was efficient enough to run small electrical devices. The New York Times stated that this discovery was “the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of harnessing the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”
The year is 1956, and the first solar cells are available commercially. The cost however is far from the reach of everyday people. At $300 for a 1 watt solar cell, the expense was far beyond anyone’s means. 1956 started showing us the first solar cells used in toys and radios. These novelty items were the first item to have solar cells available to consumers.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s satellites in the USA’s and Soviet’s space program were powered by solar cells. In the late 1960’s solar power was basically the standard for powering space bound satellites.
In the early 1970’s a way to lower the cost of solar cells was discovered. This brought the price down from $100 per watt to around $20 per watt. This research was spearheaded by Exxon. Most off-shore oil rigs used the solar cells to power the warning lights on the top of the rigs.
The period from the 1970’s to the 1990’s saw quite a change in the usage of solar cells. They began showing up on railroad crossings, in remote places to power homes and Australia’s telecommunication capabilities as well. Even desert regions saw solar power bring water to the soil where line fed power was not an option!
Today we see solar cells in a wide variety of places. You may see solar powered cars or heard of solar powered aircrafts that have flown higher than any other aircraft with the exception of the Blackbird. With the cost of solar cells well within everyone’s budget, solar power has never looked so tempting.
Recently new technology has given us screen printed solar cells, and a solar fabric that can be used to side a house, and solar shingles that install on our roofs. International markets have opened up to solar panel manufacturers are now playing a key role in the solar power industry.