When Was the Solar Panel Invented?

Tim Hamlin
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Transition to Solar Energy

Solar energy can be tapped by using solar cells. These solar cells transform the energy in sun’s rays into electrical energy. A solar cell is made of semiconductor material. The first solar cells used silicon as a semiconductor material, but today’s solar cells can also be made from gallium arsenide, germanium, silicon germanium (SiGe), and indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) and other semiconductor materials.

The first solar cells were made in the mid-20th century. At first, they were only as small as 0.25 square inch. But by the 1970s, solar cells were large enough to power small electronic devices, such as calculators. In the next 30 years, worldwide production of solar cells increased enormously. Between 1994 and 2006, production of solar cells doubled every 2 years. Also, efficiency in conversion of sunlight into electricity improved immensely during this time.

The Evolution of Solar Panels

The history of the solar panel dates back to 1839 when a man by the name of Michael Faraday presented a paper theorizing how a solar cell would generate electricity.

In 1907, a French scientist, Dr. Edmond Becquerel was the first to discover how to make the radiation of the sun interact with the materials that would otherwise remain inert or passive.

Over the next several years scientists like Charles Fritts and Charles A Besler added to the research by conducting experiments and developing ways to harness solar energy.

In 1954, the silicon solar cell was invented by Bell Labs and one of the most important solar technology advances are the dual-crystalline solar panels.

The majority of electrical energy generated in the United States is from solar power, according to the US Solar Energy Industries Association.

From the first solar energy inventions, to full-scale solar power plants, solar power has been powering homes, boats, homes, and even entire towns.

It’s cost-effective and extremely viable in nearly any climate of the world.

How It Started

A Solar Power plant, first of this type, began to operate in the United States at Meadowlark, near Boulder, Colorado, in 1947. It was subsequently shut down in 1958. The components of this plant were a mirror, a shovel and a barrel of water. The mirror collected sunlight which was concentrated on a small thermocouple (which converts heat to electric energy). Basically, the mirror heated up a metal that made electricity.

The history of solar power has it origins in the 19th century. The photovoltaic effect was discovered in 1839 by Edmond Becquerel, when he found that the electrons in a copper electrode exposed to sunlight would generate a small voltage. He got a shock from it. Later another French physicist, Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel, son of Edmond, obtained the first solar energy cell, which converted light to an electric current.

18th Century Beginnings

The first instance of a solar collector for steam engines was offered in the 18th century and were one of the first uses of solar power. They were typically used for hot water heating, but not producing electricity. Some systems were even used as a greenhouse heating for methods such as crop drying.

1904 is more of a significant date in the history of solar because this was when the first photovoltaic solar cell was created by one of Bell Labs' scientists, named Russell Ohl. His solar cell was used as a source of power for a toy car. This marked a new era where electricity was produced from solar energy in a way that was inexpensive enough to be used in consumer goods.

1923 signifies the era in which electricity from solar power was first used to make a telephone call. This was done by Bell Labs, with the first solar power system that was ever used commercially. This was a big milestone in the solar power industry, and now we have a lot more in the pipeline.

The first solar power grid was created in Germany in the year 1929. This was called the "Solar Selling Program," and it involved the usage of photovoltaic panels. These were first used to generate electricity, and hydroelectric power was used as a backup source of energy.

The First Working Solar Panels

The first known working solar panels were designed by the French physicist Edmond Becquerel in the year 1839. The earliest solar panel was not at all like what we see today. They were very simple and much more fragile.

The first successful solar panel was developed in 1883 by Charles Fritts, an American immigrant in the year 1883. Fritts developed the solar panels for the purpose of powering farm lights but he later used light bulbs made of selenium and copper. It took a decade for scientists to be able to make the panels using materials similar to the ones we see today.

The solar panels were used as an efficient source of energy but were not widely spread between the years 1910 to 1950.

Between 1954 and 1955, the government supported space program led to the development of a solar panel. Research was conducted in order to develop the black silicon solar cells that we see today. Three companies started up production of solar panels.

The first solar-powered calculators came out in the year 1971. This marked a new beginning for the solar panel industry. In the year 1973, Sharp created solar cells for a calculator model.

In the 1980s, the first solar-powered watches came out. Technological advances led to the development of the solar-powered calculators, watches, calculators, and it was also used in satellites.

Einstein’s Contribution in the Development of Solar Panels

Albert Einstein is most famously known for his theory of relativity, but there is a lesser-known fact about the Nobel laureate’s work. It involves him proposing that sunlight’s radiant energy could be harvested and be used to drive electrical power in homes.

His first published paper was about the photoelectric effect where he explained how light energy could knock electrons off a metal. This was a major discovery, which made other scientists start thinking about the potential of utilizing solar power.

In 1925, another scientist, Robert Millikan, considered the idea of using solar energy.He calculated that a large area with properly angled black plates would be sufficient to convert large amounts of solar power into usable energy.

Einstein’s full theory of solar power was outlined in a 1930 paper, where he outlined ways in which one could create solar panels. His suggestions were based on a blackened metal, providing a means of shielding the devices inside from heat and also a controlled means of absorbing radiation.

Unfortunately, beyond this theory, Einstein did not do anymore work on actually creating a solar panel that would be able to put his theory into practice. Nevertheless, his discovery led the way for further developments in the field of solar energy.

A Valuable Achievement

The Solar Panel was invented in the year 1883. Solar panels use the sun's rays to heat a fluid or air that moves a turbine to generate electricity.

The electrical form of energy from sunlight is called PhotoVoltaic Energy. This is the first step in harnessing it. The next step is to harness the energy into usable electricity.

Now some people have heard of things called solar panels. These are most often seen on the roofs of houses, churches and stores.

They were first designed and used during the late 1970's and are currently a very popular method of obtaining solar energy. Over the years, their efficiency has improved dramatically.

The cost of solar panels has dropped steadily, year by year, due to the improved efficiency of the panels as well as the added competition of the suppliers of solar panels.

One thing that even those critical of solar panels should remember is that they do not produce as much electricity, as consistently, as central power plants. This means that they are not used by utility companies and you cannot purchase your electricity from a solar company.

You must currently use them to run your home and provide power to your utility company. Even with this, the three most common reasons that still motivate people to use them are environmental concerns, financial concerns and economic concerns.

Polycrystals in Solar Panels & the First Significant Drop in Prices

A major leap in solar panel technology was made with the invention of the polycrystalline silicon thin film cells which are the most commonly used for solar panels in the world today.

Polycrystalline cells were first developed in the 70s and eventually were introduced to the market in the 1980s when the first major drop in solar panel prices occurred.

By the mid-90s, these solar cells were the standard in the United States and the rest of the world. In the last couple of years, thin film cells have overtaken polycrystalline cells in market share.

These days, there are numerous different solar cell types available to the consumer and although thin film technology is still being explored, it's not as widely used as multi-crystalline cells.

Poly-crystalline silicon is made from a silicon wafer and formed into a poly-crystalline structure and then a layer of silicon oxide is placed on top of the cells.

The First Solar Residence

In 1954, the first solar residence was built in Cambridge, England. It was called The Solar House, and was powered by novel silicon PV cells. This was the first time scientists attempted to create a solar cell that could be put to practical use.

To be able to use them at all, they had to be very efficient; otherwise, it would not be worth using them. In the end, they had to tweak the template of the cell itself, as the solar cells available back then only converted about 4% of the available sunlight into electricity.

The Silicon PV cells that were used for this solar residence turned out to be very efficient, and finally proved that solar cells were a viable option. When it came to selecting energy sources for the residence, they chose to use the PV cells and to convert it into heat, for use inside the home.

The First Solar Power Stations

The first solar power plant built was located in Maastricht, Holland. It was a modest installation which had to be removed, because of the method of installation. In 1914, direct solar radiation was used as a heat source for a road-heating system. In 1917, the first use of solar energy was recorded in the U.S.

It was used commercially to evaporate brine for salt production. At the time, these were the only uses for solar energy and the only solar related equipment was the solar collector and the solar batteries which stored the sun’s energy.

It was not until the 1970s that solar panels had their first large-scale use. Their first commercial application was to power remote telecommunications sites where connected to battery back-up systems. In the 1980s, the thin film photovoltaic or PV technology (which is what the solar panels are made of) was developed.

It led to the modern photovoltaic panels. The solar panels have now reached the point where they can be used to power anything.

Solar Panels in Astronautics & Aviation

In 1968, solar panels were introduced in the Gemini 11 and 12 space missions. The panels drew power from the sun during different times of the day, enabling the spacecraft to remain in orbit for an additional 3 days.

In the late 60s and early 70s, panels were used in space probes that landed on the moon and its satellites.

Planetary exploration was not the only use for solar panels. In 1970, the world’s first solar power station was opened. The 50-kilowatt plant was built in New Mexico and was capable of heating water for 800 homes.

Modern Solar Panels Manufacturers

Solar panel manufacturers have been around for a long time. Much like the modern day pencil, which in fact is created from re-purposed sawdust from the Civil War and also has a tip that was created using a twig from a rosebush, the solar panel has been around for quite some time.

The conception of the solar panel as we know it today was in the 19th century. The first solar panel was created as early as 1876 and consisted of different photosensitive chemicals that were put together.

In 1954, the first solar panel was put together by Bell Labs, which also invented solar cells and solar panels in the 1940s. The solar panel was able to convert sunlight to electricity for practical use. Even today, this is a benchmark among solar panels. Since then, micro-miniaturization, use of more efficient semiconductor materials, and the impacts of modern manufacturing and science has led to the creation of breakthroughs, new theories, and the improvement of semiconductor products.

The Forecast of Solar Energy

The amount of clean, renewable energy available is so large that it’s hard to imagine that solar power is relatively new.

If you look at a history of solar panels, they were first invented in 1883. Progress in solar energy has been slow, but in the 70’s, PV cells became a new market in Japan as a power source for holiday lights and calculators.

At its peak during the 90’s, solar technology accounted for less than 1 percent of worldwide electricity generating capacity.

Over the next 20 years, the Japanese and German governments invested heavily in the solar energy industry and in 2006, Europe had 40% of the world’s PV capacity, including the Empa in Switzerland. China, on the other hand has become one of the world’s leading producers of solar panels and is rapidly becoming the largest consumer as well.

Final Thoughts

Solar panels have been around since 1839 when scientist and inventor Sir Henry Latimer first made and demonstrated a prototype. In 1876, Albert Einstein discovered the photovoltaic effect, which caused an energy revolution and resulted in the first photovoltaic cell.

In 1954, Bell Labs discovered that silicon is a great material for capturing the sun’s energy. This led to the first silicon solar cells. In 1958, a prototype of the silicon solar cells were installed and working on top of Wardenclyffe Tower near New York.

A little over one year later, Bell Labs made the first practical solar cells and in 1962, the solar modules were installed on the roof of a Telstar satellite which broadcast the first live television images from space to Earth.

Around the late 1960s, photovoltaics slowly began to improve and continue to get better to this very day. Although the first solar cells were not created until 2008.