The Rise of Solar

A Brief History of Solar Energy

From obscure beginnings in the 19th century to mainstream adoption today, solar energy technology has come a long way. This article charts the major breakthroughs and events that paved the path for solar photovoltaics to become a viable and fast-growing source of renewable power. The Discovery of the Photovoltaic Effect The origins of solar energy date back to 1839 when French physicist Edmond Becquerel first discovered the photovoltaic effect. He found that certain materials would produce small amounts of electric current when exposed to light. Over the decades, researchers conducted various experiments involving selenium and silver to further explore this phenomenon. The term "photovoltaic" was coined in 1849 from the Greek words for light and electricity. In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts built the very first rudimentary solar cell using selenium wafers. This primitive solar cell had only about 1% efficiency in converting sunlight to electricity. But it inaugurated solar PV into the modern world and sparked interest in the technology.

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Early 20th Century: Limited Applications

For many decades, photovoltaic technology was a novelty. The prohibitively high costs restricted applications to small scale items like pocket calculators and watches. During this time, research moved slowly and solar only saw niche use.

A few milestones stand out from the early 20th century:

  • 1904: German physicist Wilhelm Hallwachs tested combinations of copper and cuprous oxide exposed to sunlight. This produced electricity at only 1-5% efficiency.
  • 1918: Polish scientist Jan Czochralski developed a way to produce single-crystal silicon, paving the path for more efficient PV cells down the line.
  • 1921: American inventor Albert Einsten won the Nobel Prize for discovering the law of the photoelectric effect, helping explain how PVs work on an atomic level.
  • Bell Labs developed the first silicon PV cell in 1954. It reached 6% efficiency and was mainly used on space satellites. This launched the era of silicon-based solar panels.
Early solar powered watch using basic PV technology
The Space Age and Beyond

The rise of the space age in the 1950s and 1960s provided a major impetus to solar PV research. Solar energy offered a reliable way to power satellites and spacecraft without relying on fuels or batteries. Scientists made strides in manufacturing silicon cells efficiently. But costs were still exorbitantly high for any widespread use.

Some key developments from this post-war period:

  • 1958: Solar cells power the US satellite Vanguard 1, launching solar into space.
  • 1960: The solar cell efficiency record reaches 14% in research labs.
  • 1970s: Exxon, ARCO, and Mobil oil companies enter the solar business briefly.
  • 1978: The US passes tax credits and loans to spur solar adoption. Japan and Germany also introduce incentives.
Accelerating Progress from 1990 Onwards

By the 1990s, solar PV finally started making significant progress towards affordable, large-scale energy generation. A few factors propelled this major growth:

  • Technical Improvements - Cell efficiency crept up while manufacturing costs declined. Economies of scale kicked in.
  • Silicon Shortages - New production plants were built to meet rising demand for silicon wafers.
  • Subsidies and Tax Credits - Generous government incentives made solar installations more affordable and attractive.
  • Concern Over Fossil Fuels - Carbon emissions and climate change spurred interest in clean energy alternatives.

From 2000 onwards, global solar PV capacity experienced an exponential growth trajectory, doubling about every 2 years. Some key milestones include:

  • 2006 - California mandated solar on all new home constructions. Other states in the US followed.
  • 2010 - The price of PV modules fell well below $2/watt, over a 90% drop from 1990 levels.
  • 2015 - Solar comprised 1% of global electricity capacity, surpassing nuclear generation.
  • 2016 - The US solar market installs 14.8 gigawatts of PV capacity, a 95% growth over 2015.
Present Day: Solar Scales Up

Today solar PV supplies just over 3% of total global electricity demand. That may seem modest, but represents remarkable growth from a fraction of a percent only a decade ago.

With costs continuing to fall, solar energy has firmly established itself as a rapidly growing renewable source. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts solar PV to reach over 25% of global power generation by 2050.

In the US, over 3 million homes and businesses have installed solar panels as of 2020. Large scale solar farms provide hundreds of megawatts of carbon-free energy to the grid. Major companies like Apple, Amazon, and Target are switching to solar at their operations.

The future looks bright for solar to scale up and play a major role in the global transition to sustainable energy. But it also faces challenges like integrating more flexible grid management and storage technologies. Nevertheless, solar has proven it is here to stay as a mainstream renewable source with enormous potential still to be tapped.

The Outlook for Solar Energy

The future for solar energy is very promising. Costs are projected to continue falling while adoption grows globally. With supportive policies and advances in energy storage, solar PV can eventually dominate electricity generation worldwide. The sun provides a free, abundant and renewable energy source just waiting to be fully harnessed.


International Energy Agency. "Solar PV."

National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "Photovoltaic Research."

US Department of Energy. "History of Solar."

US Energy Information Administration. "Solar Explained: Solar Energy and the Environment."