A Short History of Solar Power

Solar panels are growing in popularity, for plenty of reasons. But what started it all? Here are some fun facts to share at your next solar power party:

It all started just over 4 billion years ago, when a cheeky little ball of space gas decided to spark up.

The Sun – Est. 4,000,000,000 B.C.

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Our sun produces unfathomable amounts of energy. Even the small portion we receive here on Earth (one-billionth of its total output) is in the quadrillions of watts.

The sunlight you feel on your skin is energy carried by particles called photons. Each photon takes about eight minutes traveling at the speed of light to get from the sun to Earth. Some bounce off the atmosphere, but about two-thirds make it through, carrying heat, light, and other forms of electromagnetic radiation.

The question is: are you just going to let all that energy slap into some lame old asphalt shingles on your roof? No way, you’re an intelligent being with access to advanced technology!

Surely you can figure out a good use for all those photons beating down every day. Your ancestors sure did.

When did humans start using solar power?

Well, none of us would be here at all without the sun. Our planet formed around it, living organisms grew and produced breathable atmosphere because of it, and so on.

So, technically, we’ve been wholly reliant on solar power and its various uses forever. But this is hardly the time to wax philosophical.

When did humans realize we could use it as a tool? At least a few thousand years ago.

·        Using the sun as a natural heat source for buildings (aka “passive solar”) dates back to ancient Chinese architecture. The concept of “thermal mass” remains a central tenet of self-sustaining building design today.

·        Greeks and Romans encouraged passive solar design to heat their homes and opulent bathhouses, a first for the Western world.

·        The Mythbusters episode titled “Archimedes Death Ray” showcases an ancient device for concentrating solar, allegedly designed for setting enemy ships on fire. Archaeological finds in China show that similar devices were probably used for less-militaristic pursuits.

·        Tradition held that the Olympic torch and other sacred flames only be lit using the “pure and unpolluted flame from the sun”, accomplished via the same technique of focused sunlight employed by the huge arrays outside Las Vegas.

The saying “pics or it didn’t happen” dates back to the ancient 2000’s. Spoiler: this never really happened.

The saying “pics or it didn’t happen” dates back to the ancient 2000’s. Spoiler: this never really happened.

In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious that ancient cultures caught on to the sun providing energy in the form of heat. So, what about electricity? Who came up with the sleek shiny panels you see on the roof?

When did humanity develop solar technology as we know it?

Modern solar panels are photovoltaic (PV), meaning they produce electricity from light - the photovoltaic effect. The first time anyone observed such an effect was in 1839 by Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel, a French physicist (he technically discovered the “photogalvanic” effect – sunlight & electricity passing through an electrolyte solution rather than a solid material). But he, and many others after, were baffled as to why electric currents occurred in some materials through exposure to light.

Still, that didn’t slow anyone down from capitalizing on it. The first PV array went up on the roof of a New York apartment building in the mid 1880’s. It was a whopping 1% efficient, but many people still marveled at the capabilities and dreamed of entire cities running on this mighty technology. To be fair, we’re still dreaming of that future today.

Speaking of the modern era, the father of modern physics had a little something to do with solar power too…

Wait – that Albert Einstein?

Einstein jotted down a note in one of his papers, remarking on the possible existence of “energy quanta” (a.k.a. photons) and their potential capture. Up until then, everyone had assumed sunbeams were literal beams, not particles. In a nutshell, solar panels work by snatching up photons and knocking electrons off to create an electric current.

As notable a breakthrough this concept represented, it took another 50 years of experimentation before anyone got the concept into real-world application. The first solar cell strong enough to run simple devices came about in 1954, thanks to researchers at Bell Labs (founded by the inventor of the telephone).

Unfortunately, solar still wasn’t quite bridging the gap on cost-per-watt compared to other fuel sources. However, the US military took an interest, and launched the first solar-powered satellite on March 17th, 1958. Vanguard I lasted seven years - an unbelievable accomplishment stacked up against other technologies of the day. In contrast, Sputnik only managed to transmit data for a couple weeks before the battery kicked the bucket.

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If you were expecting the same solar modules you might see on the International Space Station, think again. The Vanguard satellite (shown) is about the size of a grapefruit. Solar research was still primarily focused on improving individual cells. Standardized panels for home use were yet to come.

When and where did residential solar arrays really take off?

Skipping a couple decades of research, in which the panels became more efficient and production increased, we arrive at the year 1980.

The Carlisle House outside of Boston is an example of a true “solar roof”, meaning the panels are part of the structure rather than mounted to it. The designers and builders flipped the switch and watched the kilowatts flow back into the grid – one of the world’s first examples of net metering.

Germany and Switzerland both invested in rooftop solar programs for citizens around this time. The results in colder, cloudier Europe got the attention of a utility company in sunny California. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District launched the Photovoltaic Pioneer Program in 1993, providing hundreds of volunteer homeowners with identical cookie-cutter solar arrays. California continues to lead the nation in solar power to this day, but lots of others are working to catch up.

That’s the great thing about solar – the sun is always shining somewhere, and most utilities have adopted net-metering policy that works. If you happen to be in a municipality where that’s not the case, get involved! We are happy to rock the boat with you and make sure homeowners everywhere can exercise their solar right-of-way.

A renewable energy future is (almost) inevitable

Despite ongoing pushback from competing interests, solar continues to revolutionize the way we produce and consume energy. So, where does the solar timeline go from here?

Orbital solar belt, anyone?

Batteries for your solar-powered moon base?

How about a Dyson sphere around the Sun?

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Regardless of your ambitions, you can make your mark in solar history by getting a quote today. Every panel we plug in brings us closer to a sustainable future for the world.

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Credit where it’s due: a lot of the research we did for this post is thanks to the excellent and exhaustively-detailed “Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy” by John Perlin, and many talented writers at CleanTechnica. Give them a read and go solar already if you haven’t!