History of Solar Energy: Understanding Its Evolution and Impact

This article offers a comprehensive overview on the history of solar energy, tracing its evolution from ancient civilizations to its modern high-tech applications.

Key takeaways:

  • Ancient civilizations harnessed solar power with mirrors and architecture.
  • First functional solar cell created in 1883, improving efficiency to 1%.
  • 1950s saw practical silicon photovoltaic cells and solar power in space.
  • Solar technology advances in the 1980s, lowering costs and increasing efficiency.
  • Current state: improved efficiency, cost reduction, global growth, technological innovation, government incentives, corporate commitment, community solar projects.

Early Solar Energy History

history of solar energy understanding its evolution and impact

The use of solar energy is not a modern phenomenon; it traces back to ancient civilizations. The Greeks and Romans harnessed solar power with mirrors to light torches for religious ceremonies.

The concept of solar architecture appeared in design principles of Greek towns in the 5th century BC, favoring south-facing homes to maximize sunlight during the colder months. Similarly, the Anasazi in North America designed cliff dwellings that captured the warmth of the sun in winter.

In the 7th century BC, magnifying glasses were used to start fires by concentrating the sun’s rays. And in the 3rd century BC, the Greeks and Romans redirected sunlight using mirrors as strategic defense mechanisms to set enemy ships ablaze.

This early understanding of solar energy laid the groundwork for future technological advancements.

The Creation of the First Solar Cell

In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts coated selenium with a thin layer of gold to form the first functional solar cell, harnessing sunlight to generate electricity. Despite the low conversion efficiency of about 1%, this breakthrough laid the foundation for photovoltaic technology. Scientists understood that certain materials, when exposed to light, can produce an electric current—this phenomenon is known as the photovoltaic effect.

Decades later, in 1941, Russell Ohl patented the modern solar cell. However, it wasn’t until 1954 that Bell Labs researchers Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller, and Daryl Chapin developed the first silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell, significantly improving efficiency to 6%. Silicon’s abundance and superior semiconductive properties have since made it the material of choice for solar cells, kickstarting more practical applications and research into solar power as a renewable energy source.

The Growth of Solar Technology

As the 20th century progressed, solar technology experienced significant advancements. During the 1950s, Bell Labs pioneered the first practical silicon photovoltaic cell, boasting an energy conversion rate of around 6%, a substantial improvement over previous models. This new efficiency milestone opened opportunities for space applications, with the Vanguard I satellite in 1958 being among the first to utilize solar cells for power, proving the technology’s reliability beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

In the wake of the energy crises of the 1970s, interest in renewable energy sources, including solar power, surged. This period catalyzed governmental and private sector investments in solar technology research, driving further improvements in efficiency and reductions in production costs.

By the 1980s, solar cells achieved efficiencies over 20%, thanks to development in materials like gallium arsenide and innovations like the solar concentrator, which strategically focuses sunlight onto high-efficiency cells. This era also witnessed the broader application of photovoltaics in residential and commercial installations, signaling a shift towards more decentralized power generation models.

In tandem with these technological strides, policy incentives and global environmental concerns consistently fuelled the growth of the solar industry, setting the stage for solar power to become a cornerstone of sustainable energy portfolios worldwide.

The Commercialization of Solar Energy

In the 1950s, solar technology began transitioning from a laboratory curiosity to a commercial product. Bell Labs introduced the first practical silicon solar cell in 1954, which was initially used in space applications, powering satellites like Vanguard I. With the energy crisis of the 1970s, public interest in renewable energy sources soared, incentivizing governments to invest in solar technology development.

Key commercial milestones:

  • Space programs adopted solar technology, proving its reliability and efficiency in the 1960s.
  • Financial incentives, such as tax credits, were introduced in the United States and other countries to encourage the use of solar energy.
  • The development of the photovoltaic effect made it possible for light to be directly converted into electricity at the atomic level, improving the commercial viability of solar panels.
  • Manufacturing advancements in the 1980s and 1990s increased the efficiency and affordability of solar cells, making them more attractive for both residential and commercial uses.
  • By the 2000s, net metering policies allowed residential and commercial users to sell excess energy back to the grid, further enhancing the appeal of investing in solar energy systems.

These advancements culminated in a significant drop in the cost of photovoltaic systems, making solar energy an increasingly common sight on rooftops and in large-scale solar farms worldwide. As economies of scale continue to take effect, the market for solar energy systems is expected to grow further, signaling a positive trend in renewable energy commercialization.

The Current State of Solar Power

Solar power is an ever-evolving field, experiencing significant advances and widespread adoption. As of the current state:

  • Efficiency Improvements: Photovoltaic cell efficiency has soared, with some cells now exceeding 22% efficiency, making them more attractive for both residential and commercial applications.
  • Cost Reduction: The cost of solar panels has plummeted by over 70% in the last decade, making solar installations more accessible to a broader audience.
  • Global Growth: An increasing number of countries are investing in solar infrastructure, leading to a record amount of solar capacity installed worldwide.
  • Technological Innovation: Bifacial panels and solar tracking systems are among the innovations enhancing energy capture, while energy storage solutions like batteries are improving solar’s utility.
  • Government Incentives: Many governments offer tax credits, rebates, and subsidies to encourage the adoption of solar power, reinforcing its viability and growth.
  • Corporate Commitment: A myriad of companies are committing to renewable energy, with solar power being a primary choice, thus driving further research and development in the sector.
  • Community Solar Projects: These allow multiple individuals to benefit from a single, shared solar array, opening up opportunities for those who cannot install private systems.

The synergy of these factors fosters a robust environment for solar power, making it a cornerstone of renewable energy strategies moving forward.


Who invented the first solar energy?

The first solar energy was invented by Edmond Becquerel, a French physicist, in 1839 when he discovered the photovoltaic effect.

When were solar panels first used on houses?

Solar panels were first used on houses in 1884 when Charles Fritts installed them on a New York City rooftop.

What did the ancient people use solar energy for?

Ancient people, specifically Egyptians, utilized solar energy to heat their homes, storing the sun’s heat in building walls for temperature regulation during cooler desert nights.

What is the history of solar thermal energy?

Solar thermal energy’s history dates back to 1878 when Augustin Mouchot showcased a solar collector with a cooling engine making ice cream, leading to the first installation of solar thermal energy equipment in the Sahara around 1910 by Frank Shuman to run a steam engine using steam produced by sunlight.

How has the efficiency of solar panels evolved over time?

The efficiency of solar panels has significantly improved over time, progressing from a mere 6% in the 1950s to the current highest efficiency rate of 46%, thanks to technological advancements and manufacturing refinements.

What are some major milestones in the development of solar energy technology?

Major milestones in the development of solar energy technology include the discovery of photovoltaic effect by Alexandre Edmond Becquerel in 1839, the creation of the first silicon solar cell by Bell Labs in 1954, the production of the first commercial panels by Farrington Daniels in the 1950s, and the achievement of grid-parity for solar power in parts of the U.S. in 2010.

How did the space industry contribute to the advancement of solar energy?

The space industry significantly contributed to the advancement of solar energy through the early adoption of solar technology in satellites and space exploration missions, stimulating advancements in efficiency and durability.

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