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What is the History of Solar Energy?

The history of solar energy is a fascinating journey that dates back to ancient civilizations, which revered the sun's power. Over centuries, innovations have harnessed this renewable source, from simple magnifying glasses to sophisticated photovoltaic cells. As we face modern energy challenges, solar's story is more relevant than ever. How did this ancient concept evolve into today's solar revolution? Let's explore together.
Dee Saale
Dee Saale
Dee Saale
Dee Saale

Humans have been trying to figure out ways to capture light and heat from the sun’s rays for thousands of years. The history of solar energy is quite long, starting in the 600s BC and continuing through current times. There is no doubt that the history of solar energy will not end any time soon. Since only a small portion of the sun’s energy is used, even now, new discoveries and new ways to harness the sun’s energy will push the solar energy timeline well into the future.

Early on, humans discovered ways to direct the sun’s rays and aim them at an intended source. This early history of solar energy was first seen when humans used magnifying glasses in the 600s BC to burn ants. Later, in the 200s BC the Greeks and Romans used mirrors to refract the sun’s rays in order to light their torches for their religious temples.

Modern solar panels pointed at the sun to absorb solar energy.
Modern solar panels pointed at the sun to absorb solar energy.

By 100 BC, solar energy was rumored to have been used when the Greeks reflected shields made of bronze on Roman ships, causing them to catch on fire. Although this feat may only be a myth, it was recreated by several scientists, including Greek engineer, Anthemius of Tralles. As early as 600 AD, he reportedly used “burning glasses” and gave the myth some validity. He recorded his findings in his treatise entitled Mechanical Paradoxes. Throughout the next 1300 years, there are repeated reports of solar energy being used to heat homes, bath houses, and public buildings.

The history of solar energy continues on through the 1700s and 1800s. During that time period, people were interested in improving the technology used to capture the sun’s energy. For example, in 1767, a scientist from Switzerland, Horace de Saussure, invented a solar collector that was later used to heat food for adventurers on expeditions. By 1816, Robert Stirling had invented an engine that would later be used to convert the sun’s energy into electrical power. The rest of the 1800s were filled with scientists developing ways to harness more of the sun’s energy and creating stronger sources of electricity from that energy.

By the 1900s, the photoelectric and photovoltaic effects were at the center of the scientific world. The history of solar energy began to be mainstream. In fact, by 1940s one of the most popular books was printed, entitled Your Solar Home. It directed people to the top solar architects and told them how they could have a solar home. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, photovoltaic cells became more efficient. By 1977, the United States had created a new government facility dedicated to capturing the sun’s energy and converting it into electricity, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The 1980s were an important time in the history of solar energy. In 1981, scientists created the first solar powered airplane. Then, in 1982, the first solar powered car was driven across Australia in record time. In addition, photovoltaic production continued to increase exponentially during the 1980s.

The 1990s were times of increased scientific discovery. Solar dishes and more efficient solar cells were invented. A look at the history of solar energy also shows that rooftop solar power became more popular over the course of the 1990s. By 2001, rooftop systems could be purchased at local hardware stores, making solar energy even more common. By 2000, gas stations, railroads, and other companies began to use solar energy in their buildings and daily activities. As technology becomes more sophisticated, solar energy will continue to transform how people design, build, work, and live their daily lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was solar energy first discovered and by whom?

Solar energy was first observed in a scientific context by French physicist Edmond Becquerel in 1839. He discovered the photovoltaic effect, which is the ability of a material to convert sunlight into electrical energy, while experimenting with a cell made of metal electrodes in a conducting solution.

How did solar technology evolve after its initial discovery?

After Becquerel's discovery, solar technology evolved slowly. In 1883, Charles Fritts created the first solar cells made from selenium wafers. However, it wasn't until 1954 that Bell Labs invented the first practical silicon solar cell, which marked the beginning of modern solar technology. This invention was a significant milestone, as it led to the development of solar panels that could efficiently convert sunlight into electricity.

What was the first commercial use of solar cells?

The first commercial use of solar cells was in the space industry. In 1958, the Vanguard I satellite used a small solar array to power its radios. This success led to solar becoming the standard power source for satellites. According to NASA, the Vanguard I's solar cells continued to operate for over seven years, proving the reliability of solar technology in space applications.

How has the efficiency of solar panels changed over time?

Since the first practical solar cells in 1954, which had an efficiency of about 6%, solar panel efficiency has improved significantly. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the highest efficiency for research-grade solar cells as of 2021 is over 47% under concentrated sunlight. Commercially available solar panels typically have efficiencies between 15% and 22%.

What role did government policies play in the adoption of solar energy?

Government policies have played a crucial role in the adoption of solar energy. Incentives like tax credits, rebates, and feed-in tariffs have made solar installations more affordable for homeowners and businesses. The U.S. Energy Information Administration notes that policies such as the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) have significantly contributed to the growth of solar energy installations in the United States.

What is the future outlook for solar energy?

The future outlook for solar energy is very promising. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that solar power is on track to set new records for deployment each year after 2022, with photovoltaics (PV) becoming the largest source of power capacity additions. Advancements in technology, decreasing costs, and increasing environmental awareness are expected to continue driving the growth of solar energy globally.

Dee Saale
Dee Saale

Dee is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has a B.A. in English Literature, as well as a law degree. Dee is especially interested in topics relating to medicine, legal issues, and home improvement, which are her specialty when contributing to TheSolarPanelGuide.

Learn more...
Dee Saale
Dee Saale

Dee is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has a B.A. in English Literature, as well as a law degree. Dee is especially interested in topics relating to medicine, legal issues, and home improvement, which are her specialty when contributing to TheSolarPanelGuide.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon925428

I didn't know people had been harnessing solar energy since the 600s BC, as mentioned in the article. Although, roasting ants with magnifying glasses may not be the best way to use solar energy.

Seriously, it is remarkable that the idea of controlling a bit of the sun's power has been around so long. That makes me wonder why the use of solar energy hasn't progressed more than it has today.

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    • Modern solar panels pointed at the sun to absorb solar energy.
      By: Pinosub
      Modern solar panels pointed at the sun to absorb solar energy.