Learn the history – how solar energy came to be?

In the previous article, we discussed the history of solar energy and the development of solar panels. The first commercially viable solar panel was developed in 1956 at Bell Labs, New Jersey. Let us further explore the history behind the wide-scale acceptance and proliferation of solar energy in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Geopolitical Instability – The Precursor for The Need of Energy Independence

  • Certain geopolitical events such as the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 caused an unprecedented shortage of oil in the USA and other countries. Oil had been the primary source of energy for all commercial activity. However, the inflation and shortage caused due to oil embargo instilled a sense of energy insecurity among both the government and masses. The perils of being dependent on foreign energy sources were felt across the entire nation.

During the phase of oil shortages, for the first time, solar panels were installed on the rooftop of the White House at the command of President Jimmy Carter. The installation of solar panels was symbolic of a new era of awareness about alternate energy and the government’s efforts and willingness to invest in alternate sources of energy.

Notable Events in The History of Solar Energy

Powering of Satellites Through Solar Energy

  • Before its wide-scale use on a commercial level, solar energy was used for powering satellites in outer space. Both American and Russian satellites such as Vanguard II, Explorer III, and Sputnik-3 deployed solar technology when launched in the year 1958. In 1964, NASA launched the first Nimbus spacecraft which was powered entirely by a 470-watt solar array.

Construction of First Solar Building in 1973

  • how solar energy came to beIn 1973, the first solar residence was constructed. It was named ‘Solar One’ and it operated on a combination of thermal solar power and PV power. In that sense, the building was powered by a hybrid supply of solar energy. Solar One was designed by The University of Delaware.

Advancements in Solar Technology – Improved Solar Conversion Efficiency

  • The primitive solar panel operated on a very low solar conversion efficiency of less than 5%. However, between 1957 to 1960, multiple experiments conducted by Hoffman Electronics led to the development of solar panels with an increased conversion efficiency of 8 to 14%. In 1985, the University of South Wales achieved another breakthrough by inventing silicon cells that boosted a conversion efficiency of 20%.

Currently, the highest efficiency of silicon cells is 34.5%. The University of South Wales is credited for the invention of these highly efficient solar cells.

Continuous Decrease in the Prices of Solar Technology

  • There has been a continuous and substantial decrease in the cost of solar technology over the past few decades. This has led to the wide-scale deployment of solar energy on a commercial scale and an increase in consumer demand as well. In 2021, solar PV with a generation capacity of 23.6 gigawatts (GW) was installed in the USA.

To get a more accurate estimation of the decrease in cost over the years, consider the following statistics:

  • In 1956, the cost of solar panels was $300/watt.
  • In 1975, this cost had dropped to $100/watt.
  • As of today, the cost of electricity generation through solar energy has dropped to $0.5/watt.
  • Since the year 1980, there has been a 10% decrease in the cost of solar panels each year.

This consistent decrease has increased the commercial viability of solar technology by manifolds.

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