History of Solar Energy

Ever wondered about the history of solar energy? The steps that were taken until today’s technology of photovoltaics? You would be surprised how old these inventions are, yet we still see solar as a new technology and have doubts about it. Let’s take a look at some of those that made history and pointed to today’s technology.

Solar history goes back as far as the 7th century B.C. although, we won’t be talking about the days how magnifying glass was used to burn things, and we’ll skip to more recent history that involves photovoltaics, like the discovery of the photovoltaic effect.

In 1839, the French scientist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, while he was experimenting with metal electrodes and electrolyte cells. When exposed to light, electricity-generation increased.

During the 1860s, French mathematician August Mouchet set the record of the direct conversion of solar radiation into mechanical power. Following his idea of solar-powered steam engine, Mouchet and his assistant, Abel Pifre, constructed the very first solar powered engines. The engines became the predecessors of modern parabolic dish collectors.

In 1876, William Grylls Adam and Richard Evans Day proved that without the need of heat or moving parts a solid material can conv1901_solar_motorert sunlight into electricity. They discovered that selenium could produce electricity when exposed to light.

An American inventor, Charles Fritts described the first solar cells made from selenium wafers, in 1883.

 In 1892, Aubrey Eneas began his solar motor experimentation and formed the first solar power company called The Solar Motor Co. in 1900.

 In 1905, Albert Einstein published his paper on the photoelectric effect (note that photoAlbert_Einstein_1947aelectric effect is different than photovoltaic effect). Einstein wins the Nobel Prize for this paper later in 1921.

Following Einstein’s theory Robert Millikan provided experimental proof of the photoelectric effect in 1916.

The first theoretical calculations of the efficiencies of various materials of different band gap widths based on the spectrum of the sun was made by DR, Dan Trivich, in 1953.

When Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson developed the silicon photovoltaic cell at Bell Labs, in    1954, it was accepted as the birth of PV technology in the United States. This was the first solar cell capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power to run every day electrical equipment. Bell Labs produced a silicon cell with 4% efficiency and later achieved 11% efficiency. Their silicon cells were used in the early satellites.

In 1955, Western Electric began to sell commercial licenses for silicon photovoltaic technologies.

In the mid-1950s, Architect Frank Bridgers designed the world’s first commercial office building using solar water heating and passive design.

The explorer VI satellite was launched with a photovoltaic array of 9600 cells on August 7, 1959.

In 1960, SiliconTelstar_2 Sensors, Inc., of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, was founded and started producing selenium and silicon photovoltaic cells. While Hoffman Electronics achieves 14% efficient photovoltaic cells.

 The first telecommunications satellite, The Telstar, was launched by Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1962.

In 1963, world’s largest photovoltaic array (242-watt) was installed in Japan on a lighthouse. Same year Sharp Corporation succeeds in producing practical silicon photovoltaic modules.

NASA launched Orbiting Astronomical Observatory with a 1-kilowatt photovoltaic array, in 1966.


  • Elliot Berman with the help from Exxon Corporation, designs a significantly less costly solar cell and brought down the price by 80% ($100-$20). This lower cost allowed for applications of offshore navigation warning lights and horns light houses, railroad crossings, and domestic solar applications began to be viewed as sensible applications in remote locations where grid-connected utilities are costly.
  • The institute of Energy Conversion is established at the University of Delaware to perform research and development on thin-film photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal systems, become the world’s fSolar_twoirst laboratory dedicated to PV research and development.
  • One of the world’s first photovoltaic powered residence Solar One was built by the University of Delaware. The system was a PV/Thermal Hybrid.
  • Solarex Corp. was founded by ex-NASA scientists.
  • David Carlson and Christopher Wronski fabricated the first Amorphous Silicon photovoltaic cells
  • The U.S. Department of Energy launched the Solar Energy Institute “National Renewable Energy Laboratory”


  • The first company to produce more than 1 megawatt of PV modules in one year was ARCO Solar.
  • The first thin-film solar cell exceeds 10% efficiency using copper sulfide/ cadmium sulfide at the University of Delaware
  • Paul MacCready built the first solar-powered aircraft, the Solar Charger.
  • The first photovoltaic megawatt scale power station goes on-line in Hisperia, California.
  • Quiet Achiever, the first solar-powered car was driven by Australian Hans Tholstrup.
  • Worldwide photovoltaic production exceeds 21.3 megawatts with sales of more than $250 million.
  • The world’s largest solar thermal facility was commissioned, Kramer Junction, California.
  • The world’s first commercial thin-film power module G4000 was released by ARCO Solar.

In 1991, President George Bush redesignates the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Institute as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

University of South Florida develops a 15.9% efficient thin-film photovoltaic cell made of cadmium telluride in 1992.

Pacific Gas & Electric completes installation of the first grid-supported photovoltaic system in Kerman, California, in 1993.

In 1994, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory developed a solar cell which becomes the Pathfinder_Plus_solar_aircraft_over_Hawaiifirst one to exceed 30% conversion efficiency.

The world’s most advanced solar powered airplane, the Icare, flew over Germany, in 1996.

The remote-controlled, solar-powered aircraft, “Pathfinder” sets an altitude record of 80,000 feet in 1998. 

Conde Nast Building (also known as 4 times square), 1990s tallest building, was completed in 1999, the building included building-integrated photovoltaic panels on the 37th through 43rd floors that produce a portion of the buildings power.

Also in 1999, Spectrolab, Inc. and National Renewable Energy Laboratory developed a photovoltaic solar cell that converts 32.3 percent of sunlight that hits it into electricity. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory achieved a new efficiency record with 18.8% thin-film photovoltaic solar cells.

Cumulative worldwide installed photovoltaic capacity reaches 1000 megawatts, in 1999


  • First Solar began production in Perrysburg, Ohio, at the world’s largest photovoltaic manufacturing plant.
  • Astronauts began installing solar panels on what will be the largest solar power array deployed in space at the International Space Station. Each wing of the array consists of 32,800 solar cells.
  • Sandia National Laboratories developed a new inverter that converts DC to AC.
  • A family in Morrison, Colorado installed the largest residential system in the United States.


  • Home Depot started to sell residential solar power systems
  • NASA’s solar-powered aircraft- Helios set a new world record for non-rocket-powered aircraft: 96,863 feet, more than 18 miles high.
  • TerraSun LLC developed a unique method of using holographic films to concentrate sunlight onto a solar cell.

In 2006, polysilicon use in photovoltaics exceeds all other polysilicon use for the first time.

New technology in solar cells broke the world record by “40 percent efficient” sunlight to electricity barrier, in 2006.

In 2008, Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have set a world record in solar cell efficiency with a photovoltaic device that converts 40.8 percent of the light that hits it into electricity. However, it was only under the concentrated energy of 326 suns that this was achieved.

In 2012, Solar3D announced their 3D photovoltaic cell with 30% more efficiency.

From the 7th century B.C. to the present, we have achieved so many steps in solar energy technology, and it keeps getting better, although it is important to understand that we need more involvement, more people looking into renewables in order to improve this beautiful technology, just like the IPhones, if they didn’t get as many users as they have and competitors, they wouldn’t have made it up to IPhone 6 plus, same thing applies to any other technology out there. Yes, we do have an easy way of using energy and some people are just not that interested in new technologies but we have to be open to new technologies and be open to the renewable world. So, why are you still using sources that pollute and have an end to them, when you could have clean endless solar energy for billions of years!


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References: http://energy.gov/eere/office-energy-efficiency-renewable-energy
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