History Of Solar Energy: What Was It Like Before The 21st Century?

While it has been widely accepted that humans learned how to start making fires using a magnifying glass to concentrate sunlight around 7th century BC, the first recorded use of solar energy came four centuries later.

Solar Energy Before The 21st Century

Thirty years after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, the Ukrainian government is looking for a way to turn the world’s most famous wasteland into the world’s largest power plant. The Guardian reports that the Ukraine’s ecology minister, Ostap Semerak is negotiating with two major US investors and four Canadian companies, that are interested in Chernobyl’s solar potential. It would be somewhat ironic, if one of the biggest industrial accidents ever gets replaced with a solar power plant – one of the safest energy technologies. The proposed 1GW plant, if built today, would be the world’s largest. There are 1GW plants in development in several other countries, including India, Iran and Egypt – but none of them have been completed yet.

As you can see, the solar energy is booming; according to a recent SEIA report, the industry has experienced an annual growth rate of 58% since 2010.  This is great news, considering that the global average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record high in March 2015, according to researchers from the NOAA. The scientists also warn that current emissions would have to be reduced by around 80%, in order to stop CO2 concentration in its upward trend. Governments and enterprises have to start relying on alternative fuel sources like agropower, hydropower, and of course solar, if they want to stop the emissions in their tracks. But before we were even thinking about how to save the environment with solar energy, people throughout the centuries took advantage of Sun’s power in other ways.

214-212 BC– The Earliest Known Examples of Solar Energy

While it has been widely accepted that humans learned how to start making fires using a magnifying glass to concentrate sunlight around 7th century BC, the first recorded use of solar energy came four centuries later. Ancient Greek and Roman historians recorded that the famous mathematician, engineer and inventor, Archimedes, constructed a “heat ray” during the Siege of Syracuse. The device reportedly used a collection of mirrors that concentrated the light onto the enemy ships. The story has been much debated; in 2004, the MythBusters failed to replicate the feat, and “busted” the myth. However, just a year later, a group of scientists from the MIT successfully recreated the device, and set a model ship on fire using 127 mirrors during the testing.

1767 – The Horace De Saussure Hot Box

Horace Benedict de Saussure was a physicist and naturalist, primarily known for his early contributions to geology (in fact, he introduced the word geology with the first volume of his “Travels in the Alps”); he was also an early Alpine explorer who invented the hygrometer. However, De Saussure contributed to the development of solar technology by creating the first solar collector in 1767 – an isolated box covered with 3 glass layers that absorbed heat energy (source: Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy). The box became widely known as the first solar oven, reaching temperatures of 230 °F.

1839 – The Photovoltaic Effect

This marks an important year for the history of solar energy; because Edmond Becquerel, a French physicist, discovered that the exposure of certain material to sunlight creates voltage. Becquerel was only 19 when he created the world’s first photovoltaic cell in his father’s laboratory. That year, he detailed the experiment in the scientific journal, Les Comptes Rendus de l’Academie des Sciences – Becquerel placed a silver chloride in acid and illuminated it while it was connected to platinum electrodes and, as a result, it generated voltage and current.

Solar Field Photovoltaic System

1873-1876 – Photoconductivity of Selenium and the Generation of Electricity

More than 40 years after Becquerel’s experiments, Willoughby Smith, an English electrical engineer observed the photoconductivity of the chemical element, selenium. Three years after the discovery, William Grylls Adams, a professor at the Department of Natural Philosophy at King’s College, working in conjunction with his student Richard Evans Day, discovered that selenium produced electricity when exposed to light. Two years later, Adams wrote Solar Heat: A Substitute for Fuel in Tropical Countries, the first book on solar energy.

1905 – Einstein’s Research

Albert Einstein needs no introduction. The Austrian physicist is known for a wide variety of scientific milestones. However, it seems that most people are not aware of his research on the photoelectric effect. Einstein formulated the photon theory of light that describes how sunlight can “release” electrons on a metal surface. 16 years after the publication of the paper, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for his “discovery of the law of photoelectric effect”.

1954 –Creation of the First Solar Cell

While the prototype of the photoelectric module was created in the late 19th century by Charles Fritts, it took the scientific community more than 50 years to design a practical solar cell. The first breakthrough came in 1918, when a Polish scientist, Jan Czochralski invented a method of growing a single-crystal silicon. The “Czochralski process” inspired Gerald Pearson and Calvin Fuller of the famous Bell Laboratories, to create the first device that converts the sunlight into electrical power in 1954.  The two scientists later pushed the conversion efficiency from 4% to 11%.

Solar Cells

1977 – The Launch of the Solar Energy Research Center

The US government’s oil price controls of the early 70s, followed by the Arab oil embargo and the creation of the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act of ’73 created an energy crisis in the US. All of this led to the embrace of the solar energy and the funding of the Solar Energy Research Institute (known today as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory).  In the next couple of years, other governments across the globe followed.

1999 – Breakthrough in Photovoltaic Efficiency

Two major milestones occurred in ’99; first, the president of EUROSOLAR, Hermann Scheer initiated the “100,000 Solar Roofs” program, with the goal of creating a power capacity of 300 MW by 2005. The second is even more important; the manufacturing company Spectrolab developed a cell that converted 323% of received light into electricity – which more than doubled the efficiency rates at that time.

The State of Solar Energy in the 21st Century

Since the start of the third millennium, the solar industry saw more development and expansion than ever before. Residential solar panels became widely available in 2001, when Home Depot started selling them in three of its stores in California (a year later, they were available in more than 60 stores nationwide). Today, the situation is even better; Greentech Media reports that the residential solar market has grown 66% since 2009. What’s more, powerful generators are no longer bound to your home; portable devices, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops can now be powered by small solar panel kits.

Solar Energy Lamps

The future is looking bright; thanks to the extension of federal tax credits, state policies and especially the cost reductions, the Solar Energy Industries Association predicts that 2016 will be another record-breaking year for the industry. Even though the technology continues to develop, MIT researchers believe that current crystalline silicon technology is capable of generating multi-terawatt-scale power by 2050. And as soon as roadblocks like fossil-fuel-leaning policies are removed, solar will step in and power the world.


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