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The brief history of solar energy

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Posted December 17, 2018

Solar Energy is becoming an alternative energy source as opposed to burning fossil fuels which are why more people are installing solar panels for powering their homes, public infrastructure, company facilities and recently, hybrid cars. Harnessing solar energy is less likely to pollute the environment since no combustion is needed to power the electrical appliances people depend on for everyday use. So how did solar energy get introduced to the United States?

Image credit: WikimediaImages via Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons

Who Invented Photovoltaic Solar Panels?

It turns out that the first solar cells were created in 1876 by a scientist named William Adams. He discovered a substance called Selenium, which could produce electricity when placed in direct sunlight. The design for this solar cell was later refined by Charles Fritts to make Selenium panels photovoltaic. But it wasn’t until Albert Einstein published his theory on energizing the electrons of a metal surface, did the idea of a solar panel truly kick off. And a few years later, Jan Czochralski figured out how to grow crystal silicon which could be used to construct a solar panel.

An official photovoltaic cell was built by Chapin, Fuller, and Pearson, three American researchers. They managed to successfully create a device to convert sunlight into an energy source. It worked well enough to power a lamp or two but it would be inefficient by today’s standards. Nonetheless, this was an important discovery because the sun’s energy won’t run out as quickly as the fossil fuel reserves society relies on to run their cars and keep the lights on.

The Early Adoption of Photovoltaic Cells

In the 1950s, however, the cost of solar panels was just too expensive for the average consumer, at $300 per watt. To make solar cells commercially feasible, they had to be installed into toys and electronics in smaller pieces, made from silicon. It does explain all the calculators and watches that could be solar powered as a backup for losing battery life. Solar manufacturers were seeking technological developments in solar-powered products, therefore encouraging engineers to build solar energy plants, further rejecting the commonly held belief that it was just a niche energy source.

What are some major events that involved the advancement of solar energy?

Solar Energy: An Emerging Trend in Alternative Fuel Sources

In the mid-1900s, solar technology was only used in outer space to power satellites and their radio transmitters. That is, until 1973, when the first solar building was established under the name “Solar One”. It had a generator that could convert solar energy into heating and electricity for the residents. Soon enough, photovoltaics had a place in aircraft carriers such as the Solar Challenger which flew from France to England. Surprisingly, solar panels were actually installed on the White House.

A series of factors lead to the decline in solar energy prices. Dr. Elliot Berman’s collaboration with Exxon made solar cells more efficient in collecting and storing sunlight before sending it downstream into electric generators. The photovoltaic cells served as batteries that recharge from exposure to the sun’s rays. The US also launched the Solar Energy Research Institute to get around a global energy crisis caused by the Arab oil embargo. It quickly inspired other nations to circumvent the skyrocketing oil prices by investing in alternative energy sources.

Modern Solar Cells

Thankfully, the price of solar panels dropped considerably over the past decades, giving more Americans affordable solar panels for their housing utilities. Typically, modern solar panel costs are a mere $2.71 to $3.57 per watt. But an entire solar panel is still worth $18,840. Of course, one must take into account the system size and the number of panels to get the full picture. According to the chart for pricing as determined by the state, people are able to save more on electricity bills if they buy a larger system.

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