The history of solar energy

Updated

A painting of a magnifying glass used by Archimedes burning an enemy ship
In ancient Greece, it is believed that Archimedes used a magnifying glass to reflect the sun and burn Roman enemy ships. Image source: Livescience.com

The sun’s energy has been utilized by ancient civilizations as far back as the 7th century B.C., when Greeks used magnifying glasses to light fires for religious purposes and set enemy ships on fire. Throughout many cultures, homes and ancient bath houses were built to be southern- facing, toward the sun, to capture its warmth year- round. 

The fundamental understanding of the sun’s energy potential led different experiments to attempt to capture its power. Today, thanks to years of scientific discovery, solar panels are used to produce electricity by harnessing the sun’s power. 

The solar panels we use today are known as solar photovoltaic devices. The term “photovoltaic” refers to the photovoltaic effect, which is when a certain material, like silicone, generates electricity through electrons after being exposed to a light source. 

Although the energy potential and use of the sun has been around for centuries, understanding the full scale and potential of the photovoltaic effect is relatively new. We will walk you through the timeline of how solar technology started, where it is now, and explore its future potential. 

Solar energy timeline 

This timeline lays out the important scientific discoveries that led to determining how to utilize solar energy and how it has become more efficient and cost-effective over the years. 

Interestingly, although solar panels are an excellent energy source, the United States government was originally slow to fully embrace their potential. 

The first time that solar seemed like a “better option than fossil fuels” was during the oil embargo of 1973 when gas shortages were rampant within the U.S. Interest in energy independence grew and with it, the beginning of solar incentives

Years later, to help boost the economy and embrace American independence, President Jimmy Carter asked Americans to practice energy conservation and began encouraging PV technology investments. He even went as far as putting solar panels on the White House. 

Historically, the U.S. lagged behind other countries in embracing solar, but this is beginning to reverse. Additionally, solar is now cheaper than coal so it now makes more economic sense to switch to renewables, like solar arrays, than to remain invested in fossil fuel plants. 

Take a look at the brief history of the key events that led to solar power becoming the success that it is today.

1839 - First solar cell is created

Experimenting with metal electrodes and an acidic solution, nineteen-year-old French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel creates the first solar cell, known as a photovoltaic cell, that could carry an electric current from light.

1883 - First functioning solar panels

Charles Fritts, an American inventor, creates the first functioning solar panels with solar cells made from selenium wafers. Selenium was discovered to be photovoltaic by Willoughby Smith. The first solar panels were affixed to a New York City rooftop, but these panels are very inefficient with an energy conversion rate of only 1%.

1888 - First U.S. patent for solar cells

Edward Weston receives the first U.S. patent for "solar cell," which helps bring more research interest which ultimately creates more efficient solar panels.  

1901 - First U.S. patent for solar panels

Nikola Tesla receives the U.S. patent for "method of utilizing, and apparatus for the utilization of, radiant energy" - also known as the solar panel!

1905 - Einstein introduces the photoelectric effect

Albert Einstein publishes a paper on the theory behind the “photoelectric effect,” which officially proved the process of how the sun creates energy through solar cells. 

1915 - Millikan proves Einstein’s theory

Robert Millikan performs an experiment on Einstein’s theory on photoelectric effect, proving the theory.

1922 - Einstein wins Nobel Prize

Einstein wins Nobel Prize for 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect.

1954 - First high-power silicon solar PV cell created

Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin, and Calvin Fuller, physicists at Bell Labs, exhibit the first high-power silicon solar PV cell that increases energy conversion efficiency by using silicone instead of selenium wafers. 

Interestingly, Bell Labs was a branch of Exxon Mobile but instead of embracing solar, Exxon reverted back to fossil fuels. 

1963 - Mass production of solar panels

Sharp Corporation produces a viable photovoltaic module of silicon solar cells, successfully mass-producing solar panels. Japan installs a 242-watt PV array on a lighthouse, the world's largest array at that time.

1964 - NASA launches first solar PV array

NASA launches the first Nimbus satellite with a 470-watt PV array after the successful launch of Vanguard I by the Naval Research Laboratory.

1970s - Research drives down solar cost

Research drives PV costs down 80%, allowing for different uses of solar panels to be tested and adopted, mostly for off-grid use. 

1973 - First solar-powered building is erected

The University of Delaware creates the first solar-powered building called the “Solar One” which uses PV panels and solar thermal energy. 

1976 - First thin-film silicon modules are produced

Kyocera Corp begins production of thin-film silicon ribbon crystal solar modules, simplifying the manufacturing process.

1977 - NREL is created

The U.S. Department of Energy establishes the U.S. Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, CO. This organization is now NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratories - they are in charge of renewable energy research for energy independence.

1999 - Germany’s 100,000 Solar Roofs program

Germany launches $500M “100,000 Solar Roofs” program. This German subsidy program was pivotal in the development of a viable residential solar industry. The German government spent the money for solar panel adoption to expand at a time when solar panels were still very expensive.

1994 - Japan’s 70,000 Solar Roofs program

Japan begins "70,000 Solar Roofs" PV subsidy program.

2005 - Birth of the investment tax credit

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L.109-58) creates a 30% investment tax credit (ITC) for commercial and residential solar energy systems that applied from January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2007. 

These credits were extended for one additional year in December 2006 by the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 (P.L.109-432). This helped make solar panels more affordable for both businesses and homeowners.

2006 - California Solar Initiative

The California Public Utilities Commission launches the California Solar Initiative (CSI), a 10-year, $3 billion solar subsidy program. After launching, the CSI program is well received by the market, with higher than expected application volume.

2007 - Solar becomes the leading clean tech

Global investment in clean energy exceeds $100 billion, with solar energy as the leading clean energy technology for venture capital and private equity investment. The solar tax credits helped to create unprecedented growth in the U.S. solar industry from 2006-2007. 

The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (P.L.110-343) included an eight-year extension of the commercial and residential solar ITC, eliminated the monetary cap for residential solar electric installations, and permitted utilities and companies paying the alternative minimum tax (AMT) to qualify for the credit. 

The 30% federal tax credit gets renewed until 2016, reducing each year until it ends in 2024.

2008 - 2012 - Cost of PV modules falls

The cost of PV modules falls from approximately $5 per watt to $1 per watt, fuelled mainly by continuing strong subsidies in Germany and new subsidy programs in Spain, Italy, and Australia.

2010 - 2018 - The beginning of large solar production factories

Chinese manufacturing companies begin to build large automated solar cell and solar module production factories that further reduce the cost of modules down to $.70 per watt

2012 - 2015 - The cost of residential solar systems becomes affordable

Residential solar system installations become cost-effective for the average American household. In 2015, more residential solar power is installed in the U.S. in over 18 months than in all the cumulative history prior to this.

2015 - Tesla announces Powerwall launch

The Tesla Motor Company announces its intention to launch a lithium ion battery storage product at a price point that would make it economic for ordinary American householders to store solar power generated during the day for use at night.

2015 - Congress extends the federal income tax credit

The U.S. Congress passes an eight-year extension to the 30% federal income tax credit, ensuring the continued growth in the adoption of photovoltaic solar power systems in America. The tax credit ends in 2021 but it would be wise for this to be extended, for both solar jobs and for renewable energy. 

2020 - 2023 - The best time to install solar panels on your home, thanks to the 26% solar tax credit

Now is the best time to save by installing solar panels on your home. The federal tax credit ensures you save on your installation by 26% - an incentive that has been extended until 2023. Use our free solar calculator to find out the costs, incentives, and returns you would get by installing solar panels.

Solar power today

From its inception, solar use grew slowly at first but it is now exceeding expectations because of its low cost to build and superiority over fossil fuels. 

In 2019, the U.S. surpassed 2 million solar panel installations, and it is projected that by 2023, this total will double. It took 40 years for the U.S. to reach 1 million installations but this growth is being fueled by the rise in home solar installations and state and cities’ clean energy goals.

California is the leading state in the U.S. for solar installations but many others are quickly catching up - states ranging from Texas to Rhode Island. Globally, Asia has the most amount of installed solar with Europe as a close second. 

As the world embraces more renewable energy, solar panels will continue to grow in popularity and be necessary in the transition off of fossil fuels. If you are interested in being part of the millions of solar installations over the next few years, find out how much you can save when you switch to solar. 

Find out how much you can save by going solar
 - Author of Solar Reviews

Ana Almerini

Web Content Specialist

Ana is a web content specialist at SolarReviews. She has 5 years of marketing experience blended with 2 years of experience in climate communications and holds a master of arts degree in climate and society from Columbia University. Ana frequently volunteers for environmental causes ranging from oyster reef restoration in NJ to expanding bike sharing in Naples, Italy.

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