Who Invented Solar Panels?

The popularity of solar panels has skyrocketed over the last 20 years. A sustainable source of clean energy, more industries and people are turning to solar power for their energy needs. But how long has solar power been around? When did solar energy first become popular? And who invented solar panels? Atlasta Solar Center is here to uncover all these questions about the history of solar panels.

Harnessing the Power of the Sun: The Photovoltaic Effect

Humanity has long since known and used the power of the sun. Several ancient civilizations used sunlight to spark fires with glass or mirrors. In the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, French physicist Edmund Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect. This process is what all solar panels use to generate energy. In simple terms, the photovoltaic effect is when you can directly convert light into electricity. In scientific terms, when sunlight shines on electrons within a conductive material, the electrons “dance,” creating a current of electricity.

The First Solar Cells

Inspired by Becquerel’s discovery, several scientists and inventors in the mid-1800s filed patents for solar powered machines and devices. But who invented solar panels? In 1883, New York inventor Charles Fritts invented the first solar cell, or photovoltaic (PV) panel. Made of a thin layer of gold coated with selenium, this solar cell produced an energy conversion rate of only 1 to 2%; today’s solar cells have an efficiency of 15-20%. While Fritts’ solar cell was low in power, his invention marked the beginning of photovoltaic panel innovation.

Throughout the rest of the 19th century, several inventors continued to innovate solar cells. For example, American inventors Edward Weston and Melvin Severy received patents for solar cells, in 1888 and in 1894, respectively.

Solar Power in the 20th Century

In the 1950s, Bell Laboratories discovered that silicon was more efficient than selenium. In 1954, inventors Daryl Chapin, Gerald Pearson, and Calvin Fuller created the first silicon solar cell. While this solar cell was only 6% efficient, it marked another historic breakthrough in solar power: the US government began funding research in solar power. As today’s solar panels are made of silicon, some believe Chapin, Fuller, and Pearson are the true inventors of the solar panel.

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The first silicon solar cell was invented in 1954.

The First Solar Building

Now we know who invented solar panels, but what about the first solar powered buildings? While the silicon solar cell was the first practical solar device, solar technology was still too expensive for most people. The first solar power building wouldn’t exist until 1973, at the University of Delaware. Named Solar One, the building ran on a combination of solar photovoltaic power and solar thermal power.

Exponential Growth

The 1970’s US energy crisis made people more aware of energy solutions and technologies. In 1974, Congress passed the Solar Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act. The Federal Government vowed “to make solar viable and affordable and market it to the public.” While growth slowed in the 1980s, in the following decades solar power has skyrocketed, thanks to the federal government’s grants and tax incentives for folks who use solar systems. Here are fast facts about solar growth:

  • In May 2016, the US reached 1 million solar installations.
  • Just 3 years later, the US reached 2 million solar installations.
  • In 2010, there was enough solar capacity to power 777,000 homes. Now there is enough solar capacity to power 13.5 million homes.
  • In 2010, solar power accounted for 0.1% of total U.S. electricity generation; that number is now 2.5%.
  • In May 2018, California became the first state to require new homes to have solar panels. 

Cost of Solar Over Time

The cost of solar panels has dropped significantly over the decades, but just how much? Every year since 1980, solar panel prices have dropped by at least 10%. As a result, solar panel’s popularity has surged as a reliable energy source.

Historic Milestones in Solar Power

While solar power is best known for powering homes, solar power has also been used for different things:

Solar Power in Outer Space

Some of the earliest uses of solar power in outer space were for satellites in the 1960s. A better known example is the International Space Station (ISS), which is powered by four large solar arrays wings. Each wing weighs over 2,400 pounds and measures 115 feet long by 39 feet wide. Together, the arrays contain over 262,400 solar cells, which generate 84 to 120 kilowatts of electricity—enough to power 40 homes.

Solar Powered Aircraft

Solar Challenger was the first solar powered aircraft, flying from France to England in 1981. In 2001, a NASA solar powered non-rocket aircraft reached an altitude of 96,000 feet. More recently, in 2016 Solar Impulse 2 completed the first zero emissions flight around the globe, using solar power.

Solar Powered White House

President Jimmy Carter had the White House’s first solar panels installed in 1979. These were removed in 1981, with new panels and solar system installed during President Barack Obama’s term.

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Solar panel costs have decreased dramatically over the last few decades.

The Future Of Solar Energy

What does the future hold for solar energy? Let’s take a look at the possibilities:

Floating Solar Panels

One possible method of solar installation is floating solar panels on lakes and oceans. While this may seem bizarre, water-based panels has several pros over land-based panels. For one, water keeps panels cool, increasing performance by 5% to 10%. Installing panels on water also solves the problem of acquiring land to implement panels. The drawback: how to properly anchor the panels.

Solar Powered Cars

Several auto companies already have solar powered test models. These cars still require a plug-in charger to run, with solar energy providing an additional “boost.” While a unique innovation, these cars are extremely pricy, so you’re unlikely to see these on the road anytime soon.

Atlasta Solar Center: Your Trusted Source For Solar Power

Whether it’s residential, commercial, off-grid solar, solar thermal, or wind power, we have the right solution for you. Call us at 970-248-0057 to learn more!

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