From Ancient Egypt to New York City in 2019, solar systems have come a long way. It's easy to think that the use of solar power is a completely modern phenomenon, but as we'll explore below, humans were using solar power long before the first solar panel was invented. Read on to learn more about the history of solar energy down through the centuries.
Our modern understanding of solar power might immediately conjure up images of the contemporary technology we use. But long before we had photovoltaic systems, the Greeks and the Romans were using architecture for the same purposes. As well as using reflective materials to manipulate the sun’s rays, these ancient cultures ensured that their buildings captured and held heat from the sun. Even way back in Ancient Egypt, people captured the heat of the sun in pools of water and then piped that water through their homes to stay warm. You might even call this the original battery storage!
Generating Some Real Power
In 1839, the discovery of the photovoltaic effect by French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel marked a defining moment in the passage of solar energy from ancient times to the modern day. This discovery set in motion decades of invention and discovery across the world, as scientists such as William Grylls Adams, Richard Day, Aleksandr Stoletov, and many more made their own breakthroughs. The technological explorations of the late 19th and early 20th century laid the foundations for the creation of commercial solar cells.
It was around the 1950s when things really began to develop at a rapid pace in the solar industry. Before the mid 20th century, solar cells were relatively inefficient and, as a result, far too expensive to build on a commercial scale. The 50s and 60s saw demand for renewable, sustainable energy sources soar, thanks to the proliferation of satellites resulting from the space race. This sparked an unprecedented level of investment and development in the solar industry, ultimately pushing the sector toward the affordable, commercially produced solar panels we know and use today.
Somewhat ironically, investment from oil and gas titan Exxon played a pivotal role in the growth of the solar industry. In the 1970s, the company gave Dr. Elliott Berman the financial backing he needed to develop a new kind of solar cell. Berman’s new design saw the cost per watt drop by a massive 80%, truly marking the beginning of the commercial solar industry. With more cost-efficient solar cells, panels started to become more commonplace.
The past decade or so has been remarkable for the solar industry, with increased investment and research leading to huge growth in the sector. The more efficient the photovoltaic technology becomes, the cheaper a solar system becomes for potential solar consumers. Thanks to the brilliant work of our predecessors, dating all the way back to ancient times, affordable solar energy is now a reality for consumers of residential and commercial solar alike. Solar cells are now used to power everything from cars to airplanes and new technology is being developed all the time.
By Shane Croghan