The evolution of solar power technology: Over the years

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Written by Harsha Kamak

August 13, 2019 • 3 min read

“Evolution is the change in characteristics of a species over several generations — which could happen over aeons or within a few centuries.” – Charles Darwin

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Us humans evolved over six million years, well solar technology isn’t new either. Its origins are in 7th Century BC. We started out concentrating the sun’s heat with glass/mirrors to light fires, burn down ant hills and for more. Today, we have almost everything – from solar-powered buildings to solar-powered vehicles.

In a world where most energy production comes from non-renewable resources, people are trying to find efficient and cost-effective ways to use renewable energy. The solar panel has been one of the great pillars of renewable energy technology.

Although some people associate solar panels with new-age technology, scientists have been working with solar cells for nearly 200 years. The evolution of solar panels has been a gradual yet worthy pursuit.

The discovery of the photovoltaic effect in 1839 by Alexandre Becquerel was the meaningful step in solar panel technology. It occurs when a material produces electricity when exposed to light.

Aleksandr Stoletov built the first solar cell in 1888. Stoletov built the solar cell based on the outer photoelectric effect, which explained why electrons emitted on exposure to energy like sunlight.

In 1904, with his scientific publication on the photoelectric effect, Albert Einstein brought widespread attention towards solar power technology.

Solar cells were sold commercially for the first time in 1955. A company called Hoffman Electrics produced solar cells at 10% efficiency and sold them commercially at $25 per cell. At this price, a present-day solar power system would cost more than 4 million dollars!

During the 1970s, the efficiency of solar panels increased due to contributions from the Solar Power Corporation. Progress in the 1960s and 1970s knocked the price per watt of solar power from $100 down to around $20. As a result, photovoltaic generation increased – reaching 21.3 megawatts in 1983.

The cost of PV panel declined significantly over time, which made its applications more cost-effective. Consequently, in 1967, solar cells made their first appearance on the Soyuz 1.

Despite Hoffman Electronics creating a more efficient solar cell, for a long time, space flight remained the only suitable use case. A U.S. space station, Skylab that orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979, was equipped with solar cells. The solar cells were critical to the functioning of Skylab. However, during its launch, some of the cells were damaged. As a result, it remained functional for only 6 years.

Former POTUS George H.W. Bush founded the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in 1991, which drove ahead research and development in solar energy. Subsequently, in 1999, solar power production reached 1000 megawatts.

timeline of solar technology evolution

Solar power technology is a cheaper option than building new electric lines for providing power to remote locations on farms, ranches, orchards, and other agricultural operations. As it requires no fuel and no maintenance, it is more convenient to operate and maintain than diesel or gasoline generators.

Solar power has come a long way in the last 200 years, from observing the properties of light to finding new ways to convert it to solar power. Today, The cost comparison of solar power technology with various technologies showed that the former is suitable for any location in the world.

In 2019, solar power’s future is brighter than ever. Undoubtedly, the solar energy sector has made a lot of progress over the years. However, the next decade is set to experience an unparalleled pace of growth – strengthening solar as a pillar for renewable energy adoption.


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