Solar energy has come a long way as a environmentally friendly renewable energy source. The history of solar power begins in the 1800s but solar cells have made leaps and bounds in efficiency in the last 30 years.
Using solar energy as a main source of electricity is a work in progress. There are still limitations to using solar energy as a power source but the technological advancements in solar energy has promise for its future.
As with all renewable energy sources, solar energy needs time to develop into a viable and efficient replacement for fossil fuels but it is interesting to see how public support for solar power is still growing.
Read on to learn more about how solar energy started and how it has developed and evolved over time.
The Discovery of Solar Energy
Edmond Becquerel was the first scientist to discover the photovoltaic effect as early as 1839. The photovoltaic effect is when a material absorbs light energy from the sun to create an electric current.
However, it wasn’t until over 40 years later when the first photovoltaic cell were being made using selenium which is photoconductive. These early examples of solar cells are far less efficient than modern day solar cells – the first solar cells only had an energy conversion rate of 1 -2%.
After this discovery in the late 1800s, solar energy technology remained somewhat stagnant until the 1950s. Then, in 1954 scientists of the Bell Factory realized that silicon was a better energy converter and made the first silicon solar cells.
Modern day solar cells are still based on the early designs developed in the Bell Factory. The main difference is that the newest solar cells are far more efficient at converting light energy into an electric current.
Improving Solar Cell Efficiency
In the 1970s, more research money was invested into solar energy. Part of the reason for this increased interest was the search for renewable energy sources as there were worldwide tensions in the oil and natural gas industries.
The main obstacle in solar power technology was (and still remains) its efficiency in converting energy. With increased research and prototypes, developers gradually improved solar cell efficiency until they became a viable alternative energy source.
Nowadays, solar cells are at about 29% efficiency with certain laboratory models reaching nearly 50% efficiency. This is a big leap from the first photocells at only 1 – 2% efficiency but there is still a long way to go for solar cells to become truly efficient.
The efficiency improvements were mainly made possible through changing the materials on the solar cells. Since 2016 the material of choice for solar panels is Cadmium Telluride (CdTe).
Cadmium Telluride is a more environmentally friendly material for solar cells since its manufacturing leaves a smaller carbon footprint than the previous solar cell favorite, silicon. It is also a cheaper raw material which has helped to lower the cost of solar power panels and its accessories.
Lowering Cost of Solar Power Technology
As with all new technologies, solar power technology has become more affordable over time. Still, converting to solar energy for homes still requires a significant initial investment and solar power generators are also generally more expensive than conventional fuel-powered generators.
The price of solar energy is measured in watts. When solar panels were still very inefficient, the price per watt was quite steep but as solar panels became more efficient, their price dropped.
There have been major price drops for solar technology in the last ten years which is further supported by government subsidies and tax reductions for homes using solar energy.
The price drops are partially made possible because of the increased researched into solar energy that have led to more affordable manufacturing of solar cells. Also, as more companies are investing in solar energy there is also more competition – more competition often leads to a drop in market price as the companies compete for greater market share.
Commercial Use of Solar Panels
Solar cells were not a commercial good from the very beginning. At the start of solar power technology it was mainly used for scientific purposes and famously used in the space industry.
It was not until the 1970s that the first commercially produced solar cells came to the market. Since then, there has been a slow but steady move towards installing solar panels as a renewable energy source for powering homes.
In 1999, the first solar panels that could produce 1000 megawatts. This was the first time that solar energy became a viable electricity source for powering homes.
Solar power is also a popular off-grid energy source for portable power stations. Since the sun’s energy is free and limitless, it makes all the difference for emergency situations in remote regions.
Solar powered portable power stations are popular with medical professionals that serve in remote regions or regions with frequent power outages. Solar generators are also popular for camping and off-road trips where portability and a constant power source are important.
Analysts predict that the cost of solar technology will continue to drop while its efficiency increases. This is a promising outlook for a viable environmentally friendly renewable energy source and reliable energy source for remote off-grid regions.
To round off, solar energy has a lot of potential but there are still improvements that can be made in affordability and efficiency. Fortunately, solar technology is becoming increasingly popular with more investments continuing in is research and development.
Harvesting solar power is not a new technology since the first evidence of using solar power to create an electric current was found as far back as the mid 1800s. However, the biggest development in solar power began much later in the 1950s with viable commercial solar cells booming in the 1990s and 2000s.
The main goal of solar power developers now is to further increase its efficiency. Hopefully, this will lead to more affordable and more varied solar technology on the market.