The History of Solar Energy

Solar energy has been around ever since the sun started to shine, but many see solar power and solar energy as a relatively new innovation of clean energy. The truth, however, is that solar energy and its interactions with us as humans has a distinct history that stretches back hundreds of years.

In timeline form, here is a brief history of how we have come to channel solar energy into a source of clean energy that many use and benefit from:Solar Collector

1767: First Solar Collector Constructed. Horace-Benedict de Saussure, a Swiss scientist, was the first to devise a way to capture solar energy when he formulated and constructed an insulated glass box that, when placed in direct sunlight, could reach temperatures of 230 degrees Fahrenheit.  Saussure’s box is now considered the first solar powered oven in history.

1839: Becquerel Studies Light and Energy. Seen as one of the first scientists to pursue solar energy, Frenchman Edmund Becquerel studied and published works on turning light into energy.  Among his major discoveries was that of the photovoltaic effect wherein solar radiation can be transferred into electrical power.

1883: First Solar Cell. Charles Fritts, following upon the discovery of Willoughby Smith that selenium was photoconductive (could convert light to energy), successfully built the first solar cell out of selenium and gold.  While the cell operated at under one percent efficiency, humans had for the first time constructed a cell that could change solar light into renewable power.

1908: Copper’s Introduction. William J. Bailey improved upon the collection process of solar energy by innovating the use of copper within the field.  This modernization is still in use by today’s manufacturers of solar equipment.

1945-1960: Popularization of Solar Energy in the United States. Following World War II, the United States began to further develop solar energy as its citizenry bolstered demand.  This high demand and overall popularity of solar energy continued as developments in the late 1950s led to increased use of solar energy in the nation’s ever-popular space program.

Sunny Day

1970s: Less Expensive Cells. Until the decade of the 1970’s solar cells, though popular, were wildly inefficient (hovering at around 14% efficiency) and costly to manufacture.  This changed when the Exxon Corporation designed a solar panel that was less expensive to create and ran at a higher efficiency rate that previous designs.  This development directly led to the possibility of solar panels being used on a wide-spread basis.

1999: Efficient Cells. 1999 marks the year when solar cells became the most efficient to date, giving the ability to reasonably and cost-effectively provide solar power to private citizens.

2012: Solar Plants Emerge. Mega plants that can produce hundreds upon hundreds of megawatts began to dot the landscape and provide solar energy to people all across the earth.

But this is not the end of the history of solar energy. Just recently, the world’s largest complex of solar plants was completed in the Mojave dessert.  With the promise of increased use and clean energy, solar power looks to continue to write its history upon the annals of the human experience for generations to come. 

photo credit: Distant Hill Gardens via photopin cc

photo credit: zachstern via photopin cc