Solar Power — Photovoltaic History

The history of solar power and photovoltaics has unfolded over hundreds of years. A blog post cannot adequately cover this topic so I chose several historical highlights to share that I found particularly interesting and pertinent.

Gujarat Solar Park, India

Ever since humans came on the scene, we’ve been trying to harness the power of the sun. We have experimented using mirrors to light torches, orienting buildings to capture the sun’s warmth, employing solar heat to cook food and heat water, powering satellites with solar cells, and converting sunlight to generate electricity to power our world.

A major factor in photovoltaics is efficiency (the amount of sunlight actually converted to electricity) so improvements in this area represent critical milestones.

Historical Highlights

Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel

1839 – French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel built the first photovoltaic device and observed the photovoltaic effect—a process in which two dissimilar materials in close contact produce an electrical voltage when struck by light or other radiant energy.

1883Charles Fritts, an American inventor, built what is often considered the first working photovoltaic cell using selenium (a semiconductor) coated with a thin layer of gold. The solar cell’s conversion efficiency was about 1%.

1918 – Polish scientist Jan Czochralski developed a way to grow single-crystal silicon, an important material used in manufacturing photovoltaic cells.

Silicon Photovoltaic Cell Developers at Bell Labs

1954 – Americans Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin, and Calvin Fuller of Bell Labs developed a silicon photovoltaic cell with 4% efficiency, enough electricity to power everyday electrical equipment.

1966 – Solar panels were installed on the Ogami Island Lighthouse in Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture. It was the world’s largest solar array at that time.

Solar One House at University of Delaware

1973 – The University of Delaware built “Solar One”. Designed by Karl Wolfgang Böer, it was one of the world’s first photovoltaic powered homes. The photovoltaic / thermal hybrid system fed surplus power into the utility grid during the day and bought power back from the utility at night.

1978President Jimmy Carter signed the National Energy Conservation Policy Act into law. Among other things, it mandated utility companies to purchase back power generated by renewable sources. As a result, private citizens with solar power generation systems could sell excess electricity back to the power companies.

1985 – The University of New South Wales broke the 20% efficiency barrier for silicon photovoltaic cells.

4 Times Square BIPV System Photo:

1999 – Construction was completed on 4 Times Square in New York City. The building incorporated more energy-efficient building techniques than any other commercial skyscraper to date, including building-integrated photovoltaic panels to produce power for the building.

2006 – The California Public Utilities Commission approved the California Solar Initiative, a $2.8 billion program to provide incentives toward solar development over an 11-year period. (We took advantage of this program for our own home rooftop solar installation.)

2008 – Scientists at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory set a world record by creating a photovoltaic cell with 40.8% efficiency.

Smart Grid Investment Grants Map2009 – Of the $16.8 billion in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds awarded to the U.S. DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, $116.8 million were earmarked for solar power. In addition, $3.4 billion was allocated to the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program. Anticipated industry matching would create a total public-private smart grid investment worth over $8 billion.

2010 – Engineers at California’s Stanford University discovered a new process that simultaneously combined the light and heat of solar radiation to generate electricity. This could result in more than doubling solar cell efficiency and hugely reducing costs.

Global Solar Power Split 2011 Chart: by Clean Technica20117 countries represented 81% of installed solar power in the world: Germany (36%), Italy (18%), Japan (7%), Spain (6%), USA (6%), China (4%), and France (4%)

2012India’s 214 megawatt Charanka Solar Park located near Charanka village in Patan district, northern Gujarat became the largest photovoltaic power station in the world. When the last phase of construction is completed in 2014, Charanka Solar Park will provide 500 megawatts of power.


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