The History of Solar Energy: Let’s Geek Out


Solar energy has gained substantial traction in the United States, with installations in every state growing every day, and hundreds of thousands of people employed in the industry. With solar on such an unstoppable trajectory, most people are focused on the future of the industry. Today, we are going to take a look back at the history of solar in America, and how we got to where we are today.

Scientific Building Blocks

One could argue that “solar energy” has been used to the benefit of humanity for centuries; we have records from 700 BC of people using mirrors to concentrate energy from the sun using magnifying glasses in order to make fires bigger. However, the history of the modern solar cell begins in 1876, when scientist William Grylls Adams discovered that Selenium, when exposed to sunlight, produces electricity. The first instance of an attempt to harness this electricity comes in 1883, when American inventor Charles Fritts developed the first design for a photovoltaic cell using Selenium wafers. Though Fritts is credited with this design, the cell was never successfully built.

In 1905, none other than Albert Einstein contributed his own knowledge to what would become the advent of solar technology, through his discoveries that one could “liberate” electrons on a metal surface by exposing them to light. This discovery was followed by another in 1918 by Polish scientist Jan Czochralski, who discovered how to grow single-crystal silicon. With this discovery, the scientific world had discovered everything necessary to develop modern solar technology.

The First Photovoltaic Cell & Early Adoption

The first photovoltaic cell was created in 1954 by American researchers David Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson of Bell Labs in New Jersey. These men are credited with the birth of photovoltaics, as they were the first to construct a device that could turn sunlight into usable electricity. Although by today’s standards the cell was highly inefficient, it worked well enough to run small electrical devices, eventually reaching 11% efficiency. On the front page of their April 26, 1954 issue, the New York Times proclaimed the discovery “…the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams — the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”

By 1956, the first solar cells were commercially available, albeit far too expensive to be adopted at any significant scale. At $300 per watt, the solar scope we see today was far beyond the means of any consumer. Instead, solar cells began appearing in toys and radios, the first iteration of the technology being adopted for commercial purposes.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, solar technology was deployed in space, installed on satellites in both U.S. and Soviet space programs. By the late 1960’s, solar power was standard in interstellar satellites.

A Growing Force

In the early 1970’s, technological developments from American Dr. Elliot Berman significantly lowered solar costs, bringing the price down from $100 per watt to around $20 per watt. The Exxon Corporation funded the research that led to this milestone, and the resulting solar panel was more efficient and less expensive than its predecessors, allowing commercial viability for solar technology and leading to a turning point in the adoption of solar energy.

The 1970s saw a global solar energy turning point as well, as the world reeled from the tumultuous repercussions of the Arab oil embargo. As oil prices quadrupled and lines formed around the blocks of gas stations throughout the country, it became apparent that the world had need of a more diverse energy system. In 1977, the US embraced the development of solar energy by creating the Solar Energy Research Institute. Other countries worldwide followed suit in the creation of their own solar-dedicated institutions. In 1978 the first iteration of a Feed-In-Tariff was implemented when President Jimmy Carter signed the National Energy Act (NEA) to encourage energy efficiency and the continued development of renewables.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

The 1970’s through the 1990’s saw slow but steady adoption of solar energy, as solar manufacturers continued making solar cells smaller and less expensive. This continued pace of development is dotted with specific feats of engineering that brought notoriety and further technological development to the field. In 1981, Paul Macready built the first solar powered aircraft. Powered by over 1,600 solar cells, the plane flew from France to England. In 1982, the first solar powered cars were developed in Germany, continuing the trend of solar-powered transportation.

Throughout this time period, developers were building increasingly large solar energy plants, establishing solar as more than just a niche energy source.  In the 1990’s, the first grid-supported solar PV system was completed in Kerman, CA, as the world’s first instance of “distributed generation,” and Germany began setting capacity goals. Solar was becoming mainstream.

Entering the Modern Solar Age

At the break of the 21st century, we saw continued developments in solar efficiency capabilities and governmental dedication to the growth of the industry. Research teams continued to break efficiency records and develop cheaper, more viable technology, which in turn allowed greater solar adoption worldwide. Governments began instituting significant financial incentives to encourage more widespread adoption of solar energy.

In 2005, the U.S. passed the Energy Policy Act, introducing for the first time a 30% investment tax credit (ITC) for residential and commercial solar energy systems. This policy was extended for one year in 2006 under the Tax Relief and Health Care Act, for eight years in 2008 under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, and for multiple years on a declining scale system in 2015 under the Omnibus Appropriations Act, allowing a reduced iteration of this credit to apply to commercial solar energy systems indefinitely.

Since the late 2000’s solar has taken off to become a national phenomenon and a credible and reliable energy source. Earlier this year, the U.S. installed its millionth solar installation; a feat that took over 50 years to accomplish, and is expected to be doubled in just two more years. Solar has taken ahold of the country and the world. New financing options, increased efficiency, progressive policies, proven results, and a true and growing belief in this energy technology will keep growing, and will keep contributing to history as it does.


Resources Consulted