The History of Solar Energy

Solar energy provides clean, inexpensive energy for more Americans than ever before, with LGCY Power at the forefront of helping homeowners who want to save. But to understand where we’re going, it’s also important to understand the history of solar energy.

So, if you’ve ever wondered, “What is the history of solar energy?” read on!

The power of the sun was first harnessed by human beings in the 7th century B.C., when primitive magnifying glasses were used to light fires.

By the 3rd century B.C., the Romans and Greeks used mirrors to magnify the sun and light their torches used in religious ceremonies. These “burning mirrors” became commonplace, with a record of this newest solar “technology” even in Chinese civilizations.

In the 1500s, the iconic Italian technologist Leonardo da Vinci envisioned large concave mirrors to heat buildings and homes, which he sketched like so many other inventions.

Around that time, wealthy Europeans started having sunrooms or early green houses built to provide solar heat and grow exotic fruits that otherwise wouldn’t thrive in that climate.

The Birth of Modern Solar Energy

But it’s not until 1839 when we see the birth of modern solar energy. It was then that a prodigious young French scientist named Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, a chemical and physical process where current or voltage is generated when a material is exposed to sunlight.

By the 1860s, a French mathematician named Augustin Mouchot registered the first patents for solar-powered engines, although they were far from usable in everyday life.

In 1873, the mineral selenium came to the forefront of solar power’s evolution, as electrical engineer Willoughby Smith discovered that the element had the potential for photoconductivity. That led to a revelation just three years later by English physicists William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day that selenium can create electricity when exposed to sunlight.

The Design of the First Solar Cells

Any discussion about the history of the development of solar energy wouldn’t be complete without Charles Fritts’ contribution. In 1883, this New York inventor designed the very first solar cells, constructed from selenium and a thin gold layer. Fritts installed these primitive solar panels on the rooftop of a New York City building. His invention only reached an energy conservation rate of 1-2 percent (while most modern solar cells operate at 15-20 percent efficiency), but these cells did produce electric current “that is continuous, constant, and of considerable force” according to Fritts’ account.

But it was another inventor, Edward Weston, who received patents for those solar cells, U.S. Patent 389,124 and U.S. Patent 389,425, in 1888. That same year, Russian scientist Aleksandr Stoletov invented the first solar cell that utilized the photoelectric effect, discharging electrons when light hit the cells.

After that, new patents came periodically, with American inventor Harry Reagan receiving a patent in 1897 for thermal batteries charged by solar energy. Another patent came in 1913 when William Coblentz designed a thermal generator that was more practical than ever before.

The Introduction of the Photovoltaic Cell

Our look at solar energy history facts takes a huge leap forward in 1954 when Bell Laboratories designed the silicon P.V. (photovoltaic) cell. There at Bell Labs, inventors Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson came up with the first-ever solar cell made of silicon – not selenium – that reached 4 percent efficiency at converting sunlight to power. With subsequent developments, they quickly reached 6 percent efficiency, but installing solar panels on a building or residential property was still a far-off concept.

One of the notable events in the brief history of the development of solar energy came with space exploration, as solar power was used to help power satellites, including Vanguard I, Vanguard II, Sputnik 3, and Explorer III, all in 1958. By 1964, NASA launched their Nimbus spacecraft satellite, which ran completely on 470-watt solar power. NASA used solar to power space exploration again in 1966 with the first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory.

Solar One: The World’s First Solar Building

In 1973, the University of Delaware created “Solar One,” the world’s first solar building. It didn’t have solar panels, but the solar capacity was built right into the rooftop materials, using a combination of solar P.V. power and solar thermal.

When the United States was thrust into an energy crisis in 1974, Congress quickly passed the Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act. With that, the U.S. government pledged to “make solar viable and affordable and market it to the public.” For the first time, it seemed that solar energy in normal life seemed viable for the near future. However, the path of growth for solar slowed in the 1980s when energy prices dropped precipitously.

The endorsement of solar power for the nation was a mercurial issue for U.S. presidents, too. President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the White House in 1979, but President Ronald Reagan had them removed in 1981. It wasn’t until 2010 when President Barack Obama asked for solar panels to be re-installed at the White House, as well as a solar hot water heater.

The Solar Challenger: First Aircraft to Run On Solar Power

Solar development got an unlikely boost from the aviation field in 1981 when Solar Challenger became the first aircraft to run entirely on solar power, flying from France to the U.K. Thirty-five years later, in 2016, Solar Impulse 2 became the first aircraft to fly around the globe with solar power and zero emissions.

As we transition from the history of solar energy to the present day, it becomes clear why residential use of solar is more popular than ever. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the prevalence of solar energy has grown by an average of 50 percent annually over the last ten years. This is largely thanks to the Solar Investment Tax Credit, which was enacted in 2006. But the technology of solar systems, from panels to batteries, has also vastly improved. In fact, installation costs are now 70 percent less than just ten years ago.

Today, solar power is less expensive, easier, and more efficient than ever, and LGCY Power is the national leader in solar power for homeowners looking to save on their energy bills.

Call LGCY Power at 1.866.566.2650 and speak with one of our experienced solar professionals. Our solar experts will answer your questions about making the switch to solar power and will demonstrate how going solar will save you money in as little as one month’s time.

Shining a Light on Solar Pioneers: Alexandre Edmond Becquerel

LGCY Power is the national leader in solar power for homeowners looking to save on their energy bills. But despite the exponential growth of solar’s popularity today, the roots of solar technology date all the way back to the 1800s.

Today, we would like to highlight the contributions of one of the world’s first solar pioneers, a man named Alexandre Edmond Becquerel.

The Father of the Photovoltaic Effect

Better known as Edmond Becquerel, he was a French physicist who lived from 1820 to 1891. He’s now recognized as the father of the photovoltaic effect, the operating principle behind solar cells, and therefore the first solar panel inventor.

The concept of solar power to provide electricity for our homes and power our businesses wasn’t even science fiction yet when a young Becquerel started tinkering in his father’s lab in Paris’ Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Becquerel’s father, Antoine César Becquerel, was also a notable scientist. It was there that young Edmond conducted seminal research into the fields of electricity, magnetism, photography, and optics.

However, his most notable contribution to science was his understanding of the core principles of solar energy, leading to his role as the world’s first solar panel inventor.

In 1839, at the age of 19, Becquerel focused his research on an almost-unheard of concept – harnessing the power of the sun to create energy. In fact, Edmond Becquerel hypothesized that “shining light on an electrode submerged in a conductive solution would create an electric current.”

Working tirelessly in his father’s laboratory, Edmond ran numerous experiments in which he tried to create the world’s very first photovoltaic cell. While you may not be familiar with the term ‘Photovoltaics’ (often abridged to ‘PV’), it is defined as the process of converting sunlight to electricity; or photons to voltage.

The First Photovoltaic Cell Is Created

And he finally did create the first photovoltaic cell by coating platinum electrodes with silver chloride or silver bromide. When the electrodes were illuminated, Becquerel found that both current and voltage were generated, a true eureka moment for solar energy. His research was soon written up and published, and he was embraced as the inventor of the photovoltaic effect, which is the science behind how solar cells operate still to this day. Thanks to his work, what we now know as the photovoltaic effect was coined the “Becquerel effect.”

Alexandre Edmond Becquerel conducted countless more experiments into photovoltaics, dedicating his life to research and developing the potential for solar power in daily use. But energy created through photovoltaics never became efficient or practical, and early solar cells were mostly just used for measuring light and other optic sciences. Solar was used to create energy in the mid-1800s during the Industrial Revolution when large industrial plants used solar power to heat water into steam, which then powered their machinery.

A Patent for the Modern Solar Cell

But it wasn’t until one hundred years later, in 1939, when an American engineer named Russell Shoemaker Ohl registered the first patent for the modern solar cell while working at AT&T’s Bell Labs, U.S. Patent 2402662.

Edmond Becquerel was widely recognized and celebrated for his scientific accomplishments during his lifetime. In 1849, he was designated as a Professor at Versaille’s Agronomic Institute and later named Chairman of Physics at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers a few years later in 1853. In 1886, towards the end of his life, Edmond Becquerel was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, a prestigious appointment.

The Becquerel Prize for Outstanding Merit in Photovoltaics

Still to this day, the European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition (EU PVSEC) bequeaths The Becquerel Prize for someone who demonstrates “outstanding merit in photovoltaics.”

Solar power is finally becoming mainstream, and it’s all thanks to the contributions of Edmond Becquerel with his discovery of the photovoltaic effect.

So, if someone ever asks you, “Who created solar power?”, now you’ll be fully aware that it was a Frenchman named Alexandre Edmond Becquerel!

Sources:
Solar Photovoltaic Technology Basics
Edmond Becquerel
Edmond Becquerel: The Man Behind Solar Panels
Russell Ohl