History of Solar Panels Timeline: In-depth Chronological Evolution

Because the journey of solar panels is both intriguing and informative, tracking their timeline from inception to modern utility provides essential insight into this important renewable energy source.

Key takeaways:

  • Solar oven invented in 1767, harnessed sunlight for heat.
  • Edmond Becquerel discovered photovoltaic effect in 1839.
  • William Grylls Adams and Richard Day generated electricity from light in 1876.
  • First practical silicon solar cell created in 1954, with 6% efficiency.
  • Solar technology proliferated in the 1970s, thanks to energy crisis and incentives.

Early Experiments and Discoveries

The foundation of solar power technology began in the 18th century with the advent of the solar oven, a device harnessing sunlight for heat. As we progressed, the 19th century brought forth pivotal experiments, notably by Edmond Becquerel, who, in 1839 at the age of nineteen, discovered that certain materials produced small amounts of electric current when exposed to light. This phenomenon, later termed the photovoltaic effect, became the cornerstone principle behind solar cells.

the foundation of solar power technology began in the 18th century with the advent of the solar

Further advancements came with William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day in 1876, who found that selenium could convert light into electricity without the need for heat or moving parts. This discovery challenged the traditional beliefs held about the capabilities of certain materials and their relation to light and energy. Despite the low efficiency of these early cells, the fundamental concept that sunlight could be directly converted into electrical energy was revolutionary and set the stage for the evolution of solar power technology.

1767 – First Solar Oven

In 1767, Swiss scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure built the world’s first solar oven, harnessing sunlight to achieve cooking temperatures. This pioneering invention consisted of a simple wooden box with three layers of glass trapping heat from the sun’s rays. Saussure’s solar oven reached temperatures of around 230 degrees Fahrenheit, demonstrating the practical use of solar energy for heating.

This early application of solar principles laid the groundwork for the conceptual development of solar thermal energy. Though basic in design, the device effectively utilized greenhouse effects, where light passes through the transparent glass, gets absorbed by dark surfaces inside, and is converted to heat, unable to escape, thereby increasing the temperature within the contraption.

1839 – Discovery of the Photovoltaic Effect By Edmond Becquerel

In 1839, at the age of just 19, French physicist Edmond Becquerel observed that certain materials produced small amounts of electric current when exposed to light. While conducting experiments in his father’s laboratory, he created an electrolytic cell made up of two metal electrodes placed in an electrolyte solution. Upon exposure to light, electricity generation increased—this was the first evidence of the photovoltaic effect.

Becquerel’s discovery laid the foundation for solar cells by demonstrating that sunlight can be converted directly into electricity without any moving parts or the need for heat. This effect is the working principle behind photovoltaic technology, where light photons are absorbed by materials like silicon, causing the displacement of electrons and resulting in an electrical current.

Becquerel’s work was groundbreaking because it established the essential physics behind solar power—a renewable energy source with the potential to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. His insights propelled future research into harnessing the sun’s energy, ultimately making solar energy a viable solution for global power needs.

1876 – Generation of Electricity From Light

In 1876, William Grylls Adams and his student Richard Day conducted a groundbreaking experiment involving selenium and light which ultimately shifted the trajectory of solar power. They discovered that when selenium was exposed to light, it produced electricity without heat or moving parts. This phenomenon was distinct from the thermal-based energy generation that dominated the 19th century, introducing a new form of power—photoelectricity—that didn’t rely on the sun’s heat.

Their work was foundational because it proved that sunlight could be converted directly into electrical energy, laying the conceptual groundwork for modern photovoltaic technology. Despite selenium’s low efficiency in converting light into electricity, this milestone demonstrated the basic principle that light could indeed generate an electric current. It was the first time that materials other than silicon, which is used in modern solar cells, were shown capable of photovoltaic energy conversion, opening the door for further research and the development of more effective materials for solar cells.

Development of Solar Cells

In 1883, Charles Fritts coated selenium with a thin layer of gold to create the first functional photovoltaic cell, although the efficiency was merely 1%. Nearly two decades later, Albert Einstein provided a theoretical explanation for the photoelectric effect, contributing to our understanding of how light can be converted into electricity, work that earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

While this early solar cell was not practical for generating a significant amount of electricity, it laid the groundwork for future innovations.

Further developments in semiconductor technology in the 1940s and 1950s culminated in the Bell Labs’ creation of the first silicon solar cell capable of converting enough sunlight into energy to power everyday electrical equipment. A sudden spike in efficiency from Fritts’s original 1% to about 6% marked a significant step forward.

These advancements signaled the transition from theoretical science to practical applications, setting the stage for solar power to become a contender in the realm of renewable energy sources.

1883 – Creation of the First Functional Photovoltaic Cell

In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts took the first steps towards practical solar power by constructing a photovoltaic cell using selenium coated with a thin layer of gold. This cell, considered rudimentary by today’s standards, had a conversion efficiency of around 1-2%, a significant starting point given the limited technology of the time.

Fritts’s work laid the foundation for future developments, as it demonstrated that materials exposed to light could indeed generate electric current without moving parts or heat. Although selenium is no longer used in modern solar technologies, Fritts’s pioneering design proved the concept of photovoltaic energy conversion, kickstarting the evolution of solar technology.

1905 – Albert Einstein’s Work On the Photoelectric Effect

Albert Einstein’s pivotal paper on the photoelectric effect offered a quantum explanation for why certain materials generate electric current when exposed to light. Here are some points clarifying this concept:

  • Quantum Theory of Light: Einstein proposed that light could be thought of as discrete packets of energy, known as photons, each with energy proportional to its frequency.
  • Energy Transfer: When photons hit the surface of a material, their energy can be absorbed by electrons within the material.
  • Emission of Electrons: If the incoming photon’s energy exceeds the electron’s “work function” – the energy binding it within the material – the electron is released.
  • Current Generation: The liberation of these electrons enables an electrical current to flow, a phenomenon crucial to the eventual development of solar cells capable of converting sunlight into electricity.
  • Nobel Prize in Physics: For this work, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, further validating the significance of his contribution to the field of photovoltaics.

First Silicon Solar Cell and Efficiency Improvements

In 1954, Bell Labs engineered a significant breakthrough: the first practical silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell. Unlike earlier attempts, this cell could actually convert enough sunlight into electricity to power everyday electrical equipment. Initially, the efficiency rate was about 6%, a sixfold increase over previous solar cells.

Following this milestone, there was a focused effort to enhance the efficiency and reduce the cost of solar cells. By the late 1950s, efficiency levels had reached double digits, making solar power more viable. Researchers discovered that doping silicon with certain impurities could improve the electrical output, leading to more efficient energy conversion.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, these improvements continued with the development of antireflective coatings and better encapsulation materials to protect the cells, further boosting their efficiency and lifecycle.

By the early 2000s, commercial solar cells achieved efficiency rates of over 15%, a stark contrast to the early versions. Today, advanced research is pushing the boundaries even further, with some cells in laboratories reaching above 25% efficiency, paving the way for more accessible solar energy solutions.

1954 – Invention of the First Practical Photovoltaic Cell

In 1954, Bell Labs engineers Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson, and Daryl Chapin achieved a milestone in converting solar energy directly into electrical power. This breakthrough came with the creation of a silicon-based solar cell capable of yielding a 6% energy conversion efficiency—far superior to earlier attempts that managed only fractional percentages. The innovation not only marked the potential for harnessing solar energy on a broader scale but also laid the foundation for modern solar technology.

This momentous invention:

  • Utilized silicon, an abundant element, and showcased its photovoltaic properties when treated properly.
  • Provided a renewable energy source alternative amidst growing concerns about the limitations of fossil fuels.
  • Paved the way for the integration of solar cells into electronic devices, homes, and later, space technology.

The public demonstration of this solar cell emphasized the feasibility of solar power for various applications and sparked decades of research into making solar energy a viable, widespread energy solution.

Solar Energy in Space Exploration

Space exploration has significantly benefited from the integration of solar technology. In particular:

  • The Vanguard I satellite, launched in 1958, was the first to employ solar cells, demonstrating their viability in powering space missions.
  • NASA’s extensive use of solar power for spacecraft, including the Mariner missions of the 1960s, which conducted planetary flybys, depended on photovoltaic panels for energy.
  • The Skylab space station, operational from 1973 to 1979, relied on solar energy for its internal electricity needs.
  • More recently, the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, utilized solar panels to sustain their long-term explorations.
  • The International Space Station, continuously inhabited since 2000, uses expansive solar arrays to maintain life support systems and scientific equipment.
  • The Juno spacecraft, orbiting Jupiter since 2016, is powered by solar cells despite the planet’s vast distance from the sun where sunlight is much weaker.

Each milestone demonstrates advancements in solar technology’s efficiency and resilience, particularly in the harsh conditions of space.

1958 – Vanguard I Satellite Uses Solar Cells

In 1958, the Vanguard I satellite marked a significant milestone by employing solar cells as its power source. This achievement demonstrated the reliability of photovoltaic technology in the harsh environment of space, where traditional power methods were impractical.

Key points of the Vanguard I satellite’s use of solar cells include:

  • The satellite’s solar array consisted of tiny, 1 cm² solar cells that were able to power its radio for over a year, far outlasting the expected lifespan.
  • This event kick-started the use of solar power for long-term missions in space, showcasing solar cells’ potential for continuous, maintenance-free energy production.
  • Solar power proved to be essential for the sustainability of satellite technology, which requires an uninterrupted energy supply to operate scientific instruments and communication devices.
  • The success with Vanguard I influenced solar cell design for numerous other space missions, highlighting the importance of solar energy in the advancement of space exploration.

Proliferation and Commercialization

The energy crisis of the 1970s acted as a catalyst, propelling solar technology into the residential and commercial sectors. Previously, the high cost of production limited the use of solar panels to niche applications, such as space exploration. However, as oil prices soared, governments and businesses started to see the long-term potential in investing in alternative energy sources.

In 1973, the University of Delaware constructed one of the first solar-powered buildings, named “Solar One.” This significant milestone demonstrated the practicality and efficiency of solar technology in everyday applications. The building integrated a solar thermal system with a photovoltaic system, showcasing the potential for solar power to meet a significant portion of energy needs in homes and businesses.

Following this, in 1976, the development of silicon solar cells marked the production of the more efficient thin-film solar modules. These advancements, alongside growing environmental awareness, helped to bring solar panels into the commercial market, albeit at a premium initially.

With each breakthrough, the cost per watt of solar power began to decrease gradually. This encouraged the proliferation of solar panels into mainstream markets, with companies beginning to commercialize solar technology for the wider public. Systems became increasingly more affordable and accessible, paving the way for widespread adoption of solar energy solutions in the following decades.

1973 – First Solar-powered Residential Building

In 1973, the University of Delaware constructed an intriguing prototype dubbed the “Solar One.” This landmark structure became the world’s first solar-powered residence, incorporating a unique design that fully harnessed the power of the sun.

Solar One operated on a hybrid system that adeptly combined photovoltaic panels and a solar thermal system. The photovoltaic panels, responsible for converting sunlight directly into electricity, significantly reduced the home’s reliance on the traditional power grid. Meanwhile, the solar thermal system captured heat from the sun, providing a renewable source for the home’s heating and hot water needs.

This innovative project not only demonstrated the feasibility of residential solar power but also paved the way for greater advancements in energy efficiency and building design. Solar One served as a critical testing ground and showcased the potential for integrating renewable energy into everyday living spaces, inspiring subsequent generations of energy-conscious architects and homeowners.

1976 – Production of the First Thin-film Silicon Modules

In 1976, a revolutionary advancement in the solar power industry emerged with the creation of the first thin-film silicon modules. These modules marked a departure from traditional crystalline silicon cells towards a more versatile and potentially less costly alternative.

Key Points on Thin-Film Silicon Modules:

  • Comprised of very fine layers of silicon applied directly onto a substrate, thin-film modules were a significant stride in material efficiency.
  • The manufacturing process required less silicon, leading to a reduction in production costs compared to traditional solar panels.
  • Thin-film technology offered flexibility in application, allowing the panels to be integrated into a variety of materials including building windows, facades, and even consumer electronics.
  • Though initially less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, ongoing research has steadily improved their performance.

This innovation expanded the potential uses of solar power, opening new markets and applications that continue to evolve today.

Incentives and Programs

Governments worldwide have implemented diverse incentive programs to accelerate solar technology adoption and reduce dependency on fossil fuels. Japan led the way in 1994 with the 70,000 Roofs program, aiming to expand the residential solar market. This initiative was followed by various international financial incentives, including feed-in tariffs, where homeowners and businesses are paid for the surplus energy they feed back to the grid.

In the United States, the Investment Tax Credit (ITC), introduced in 2005, has played a pivotal role in the solar industry’s growth. This policy allows for a significant deduction from federal tax liabilities, covering a percentage of the cost of installing a solar system. The ITC has been instrumental in making solar energy more accessible and affordable to a broader audience.

These programs serve as catalysts for industry growth, making solar investments more appealing to private sectors and individuals alike. Subsidies, renewable energy certificates, and net metering policies have also supported the advancement and integration of solar power into the energy mix, contributing to the remarkable expansion of the solar market over the years.


When were solar panels first used on houses?

The first use of solar panels on houses traces back to 1973 with the creation of Solar One, a fully solar-powered building in Delaware.

When did solar panels start getting popular?

Solar panels started gaining popularity in the 1980s, stimulated by federal acts that provided incentives and tax credits for renewable energy installation in homes.

Did solar panels exist in the 90s?

Yes, solar panels did exist in the 90s, but they were significantly more expensive than they are today.

When did solar panels become commercially available?

Solar panels first became commercially available in 1956.

What significant advancements in solar panel technology occurred in the 21st century?

Significant advancements in solar panel technology in the 21st century include improved efficiency due to the development of perovskite cells, bifacial solar technology, and advancements in photovoltaic materials.

Which company produced the first commercial solar panels?

The first commercial solar panels were produced by Bell Labs in 1954.

How has the efficiency of solar panels changed over the decades?

The efficiency of solar panels has significantly improved over the decades due to advancements in technology and material sciences.

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