A Brief but Complete History of Solar Power


The solar power industry is booming and isn’t slowing down, but have you ever wondered about how it became so popular? Out of all the sustainable energy options, how did it rise to the top?

We are going to break down the history of solar power in this complete guide. We’re going all the way back to the 7th century BC to look at how the sun has sustained humans since the very beginning.

By the end of this article, you will not only be an expert in the history of solar power, but you’ll get a peek into the future of the renewable energy industry too.

The Early History of Solar Power

Mankind has always relied on the sun for energy. Ancient civilizations utilized the sun’s power for centuries. They would hold up magnifying glasses to the sun to start outdoor fires.

Jumping ahead to 1955, solar power burst onto the renewable energy stage. Bell Laboratories researchers created one of the first solar panels. They overcame many technological challenges to create the early solar panel, which has six percent PV efficiency.

Four years later in 1959, Hoffman Electronics released a commercial solar panel with 10 percent PV efficiency, a marvel at the time. Bell Laboratories was still hard at work. In 1962, they launched the Telstar, which is the first telecommunications satellite with 14-watt solar cells.

Solar panel technology advanced again in 1970 when Western Electric patented a solar cell anti-reflective coating. By this time, curiosity about solar energy had grown and the industry was set to explode.

The United States was finally embracing solar energy in the early seventies during gas shortages. The need for alternate energy sources became clear, so in 1972 the Institute of Energy Conversion was founded.

The institute was part of the University of Delaware, and its sole mission was researching and developing solar power energy. Later in 1977, research continued when the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, known at the time as SERI, was founded in Colorado.

Solar Power Early Adoption

With so much more research and discoveries about solar power, industries started to adopt it as an energy source.

In 1977, the state of Nebraska employed 100,000 solar cells to power their irrigation pumps in Mead. The same year, due to more issues caused by the oil crisis, the United Stated formed the U.S. Department of Energy.

This gave solar power a much bigger stage and more room to develop. The Department of Energy boosted research by establishing the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They also expanded the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Home-owners were also starting to adopt solar energy, but they faced opposition from Home Owners Association groups. In 1978, the state of California passed the Solar Rights Act, which protected residents who wanted to install solar panels on their homes. Now, HOAs could not object.

Advancements in the Solar Power Industry

At this point, the growth of solar power could not be stopped or slowed down. In 1980, ARCO Solar produced more than one megawatt of PV modules in a year, making them the first company to achieve this milestone.

That same year, the Institute of Energy Conversion from the University of Delaware developed the first thin-film cell with over 10% PV efficiency. These advancements made solar power more attractive as an independent energy option, which paved the way for further adoption.

But the advancements didn’t stop there. In 1985, Standford University made a huge achievement when they produced a solar cell that was 25% efficient. The next year, ARCO also pushed the industry forward with their commercial thin-film solar module, the first of its kind.

The Solar Boom

Solar power was now a hot topic everywhere. In 1986, the world’s largest solar thermal facility opened in Kramar Junction, California. It was commissioned to use mirrors as a way to heat fluids and make steam to produce energy.

The 90s kicked off with the University of Michigan winning the first American Solar Challenge with the first solar car called the Sunrunner.

In 1993, the utility company Pacific Gas and Electric a 500-watt PV system to add stability and reliability to a substation. This paved the way for more utility companies to embrace solar power.

More advancements and adoption took place in the early 90s and in 1996, the National Center for Photovoltaics was established to improve solar research.

By this point, the idea of climate change is more mainstream, and President Bill Clinton announced the Million Solar Roofs Initiative in 1997. The goal of the initiative was to grow the solar power industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar panel manufacturing sees a boost during this era too. At the turn of the new century, the company First Solar establishes the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in Ohio. This plant drastically increased manufacturing capacity, which was needed to meet the high demand for solar panels.

In 2005, it was time for the next generation of solar panels. The Sandia National Laboratory began researching and developing a new solar collection dish at the National Solar Thermal Test Facility.

New Solar Initiatives

In 2011, the Department of Energy unveiled the SunShot Initiative, which had a goal of reducing the cost of solar energy by 75% to make it a more accessible energy source.

In 2015, the research and advancements paid off when solar power officially reached one percent of the world’s energy supply. The next year, the United States also reached one million solar installations, a huge milestone for the solar power industry. The growth could be attributed to the SunShot initiative that made solar power much more affordable.

At this time, states were also promoting solar power as the best green energy option. Check out this article to find more information about going solar in Texas.

The Future of Solar Power

Today, solar power is a highly regarded and accessible independent energy source. It’s favored for its sustainability profile and affordable prices. Homeowners and businesses are installing solar panels at a rapid rate to lower their footprint and utility bills.

SunShot now has a new goal to cut costs again by 2030 to boost solar adoption even more. Time will tell if solar power becomes the number one preferred energy source in the next few years.

For more technology resources and guides, check out the rest of the blog.

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