Harnessing the Sun: The History of Solar Power

The concept of solar energy has existed for centuries, but it is about to become more popular than ever before.

Solar power is expected to account for 60% of the global increase in renewable energy in 2022. Global oil supplies continue to decline, and global warming has provided more reason to own a solar generator than ever before. There has never been a better time to invest in this sustainable energy. 

oupes solar generator includes solar panels and power station

But the road to this point hasn't always been easy. As a technology, solar power has faced many setbacks throughout its rich and, at times, tumultuous history.

So what is solar power exactly? And how was it discovered? Below, we take a deep dive into the history of solar energy.

The Advent of Solar Power

To begin, let's talk about how solar energy is created. Ultimately, solar power takes energy collected from sunlight and converts it into electricity. 

This process uses photovoltaics, concentrated solar power, or a combination of the two. 

Concentrated solar power applies solar tracking, mirrors, or lenses to direct a large area of sunlight to one spot. Photovoltaic cells turn light into electricity.

As a concept, solar energy has existed for centuries. There is proof that some of the earliest civilizations already utilized sunlight to create energy. 

7th Century B.C.

The earliest proof of this goes back as far as the 7th Century B.C. It's believed small magnifying glass-type tools were used to harness solar energy to start fires. 

This marked the earliest application of concentrated solar power ever recorded. 

3rd Century B.C. 

By the 3rd century B.C. Greeks and Romans were using similar devices to light torches. These devices were referred to as "burning mirrors." 

The Romans also strategically built bathhouses so the sun's rays would warm up the water. 

The 1700s

Evidence suggests that in the 1700s, solar energy was used to power ovens. The cutting-edge technology helped power steamboats during long voyages.

The Photovoltaic Effect

The 1800s were met with fears of a coal shortage. The threat of supply issues prompted society to look for better energy alternatives. It was at this time that solar power began to take off.

In 1839 Edmond Becquerel, a French physicist, discovered the photovoltaic effect. Becquerel realized that light could create electricity when metal electrodes were placed into a conducting solution. 

Then, in 1873, English engineer Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium could be photoconductive. And in 1876, English physicist William Grylls Adams and his student, Richard Evan Day, realized selenium created electricity when exposed to the sun.

In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts produced the first solar cell using selenium. Fritts installed the first photovoltaic solar array on a New York City rooftop in 1884. But when the supply of the more cheap coal increased again, solar energy efforts stalled.

The 1900s

From 1884 until the 1950s, solar energy developments were stagnant. Renewed interest in finding sustainable energy alternatives led to new developments by the 1950s.

The 1950s

In 1954, scientists David Chaplin, Gerald Pearson, and Calvin Fuller created the world's first modern solar cell at Bell Labs in America. The invention was later patented.

Unfortunately, at $300/watt, solar energy remained unattainable to most of the population. But, in 1958, Vanguard 1, the world's first solar-powered satellite, was launched into space. The satellite is still operating today.

The 1970s

In 1973, Saudi Arabia led the oil and petroleum embargo in retaliation against nations supporting Isreal in the Arab-Israeli war. A second oil crisis in 1979 caused a dip in oil production because of the Iranian Revolution. The crisis' reignited interest in renewable energy sources like solar power through the 1970s. 

The oil crisis led to the creation of solar energy initiatives like the Sunshine Program in Japan and the Utilization Program in America.

"Solar One," the first solar-powered building, was constructed at the University of Delaware in 1973. By 1975, solar energy costs fell to $100/watt, and the price has continued to decline every year since.

In 1978, President Carter introduced the National Energy Tax to tackle the energy crisis by creating a 20% solar energy target by 2000. In 1979, he installed a solar water heater on the roof of The White House.

But from 1984 to 1996, President Reagan would remove the panel and all the funding for the National Energy Tax. Oil prices also fell dramatically, stalling solar power technology back once again. 

Millennium Solar Power

In 2005, the Bush administration passed another energy policy act. The act pledged that America would commit to developing renewable energy sources.

The development of solar power shifted towards Asia, where the most prominent solar technology producers were in China for much of the 2010s.

By 2016, the cost of solar technology had decreased enough to increase in popularity. In 2021, solar energy development had a record-breaking year.

Earlier this year, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act. The act allows Americans to claim a tax credit, covering 30% of the installation cost for solar technologies. The initiative will last into 2032.

Today, solar power is regularly used in residential and commercial applications. The technology is commonly found in a solar generator and solar panels, lights, solar paint, solar roof shingles, and solar trees.

oupes soalr generator in outdoor

The Future of Solar Energy

Solar power has had a rich history filled with highlights, lowlights, and countless obstacles. Society continues to harness solar energy to provide life's greatest necessities. The technology will only continue to gain popularity in the years to come as we move towards a reliance on renewable energy. 

If you want to find out more about solar energy or are considering purchasing a solar generator, we can help.