The History and Growth of the #1 Clean Energy

By: Christo Hunter

The idea of harnessing the power of the sun dates as far back as the 7th century. The energy from the sun has been put to use since almost the beginning of man in his most primitive state, with an early example being the utilization of magnifying glasses to focus the sun’s energy to start fires. The starting point of the solar power cell was in 1839, when French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect while toying with cells made of metal electrodes in a conducting solution. Along with this discovery, he made sure to jot down the fact that more electricity was produced when exposed to light. About 34 years later, Willoughby Smith figured out selenium was able to function as a photoconductor. Three years later, the scientists William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day combined these two discoveries together, discovering that selenium, with the photovoltaic effect applied, could produce electricity from light. Then, in 1883, an American inventor, Charles Fritz, constructed the first working selenium solar cell. Many played a role in the creation of the solar cell, but many credit Becquerel with finding the potential and Fritz with the creation of the precursor to today’s technology.

Albert Einstein brought the world’s attention to solar energy and the potential behind it with a paper he published in 1950 describing the photoelectric effect and how light carries energy. This new generation of attention and acceptance paved the way for solar power on a wider scale than before. During this time, a jump was made towards the creation of solar cells like the ones we have today: three scientists from Bell Labs created a much more practical solar cell with silicon. Silicon was more efficient and available than selenium. Solar panels developed more and more as the space age progressed, with them being used to power different parts of the spacecraft. It would not be long before solar panels moved to commercial and residential use. 

In the 1970s, a global shortage of oil brought attention to alternative sources of energy. During this time, President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the white house to spread awareness. With the public’s interest in the technology over recent decades, cost and efficiency slowly get better and better. The improvements are most notably in recent years, with it being at the lowest ever with an average home being between 15 and 18 percent efficiency and costs as low as 50 cents per watt. Since the 1980s, solar panels have decreased in price by 10 percent per year thanks to the engineers and scientists that dedicate their time to improving this field and creating better clean energy.