Between climate change, dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, and the need to become energy independent, America is investing in solar energy in a big way. By the end of 2018, there were enough solar panels in the United States to power 12.3 million homes. And that number is expected to increase exponentially moving forward.
But where did the technology behind solar panels come from? Interestingly, the story begins well before the first solar panels were even a twinkle in their inventors’ eyes.
The Photovoltaic Effect: The Foundation of Solar Technology
Scientists had known for millennia that sunlight was a form of energy. We knew as early as the seventh century B.C. that sunlight could be passed through a magnifying lens to start fires. By the third century B.C. the Greeks and Romans had mastered the concept, building systems of lenses and mirrors to light torches and such on-demand.
These early experiments demonstrated sunlight’s potential. But it would take a couple of thousand years for the full possibilities became apparent.
The beginnings of solar technology as we now know it can be traced back to France, in the year 1839. Here, a young physicist by the name of Edmond Becquerel makes a discovery that will become more important than he could possibly imagine.
His discovery was the photovoltaic effect – the process that produces an electric current when exposed to light. If you know how solar panels work, you’ll recognize the term; photovoltaic cells are the core component in solar panels.
A few decades later, the French mathematician Augustin Mouchot would draw inspiration from Becquerel’s work. He’d start filing patents for solar-powered engines in the 1860s. A number of other inventors would likewise file patents for their own solar-powered devices in the years that followed.
But these were only ideas for singular devices. What if you could harness the power of the sun and use it to power anything that runs on electricity?
The First Solar Cells
As the unlimited potential of the sun became more obvious, it was only a matter of time before someone would make the next logical step forward. The first person to make that leap would be a New York-based inventor named Charles Fritts.
Fritts would be the first person to invent a simple solar panel by coating selenium with a thin layer of gold.
This primitive solar cell produced an energy conversion rate of only 1-2%. Modern cells, by contrast, work at an efficiency of about 15-20% and are getting more powerful all the time.
But great things can come from inauspicious origins. The following century would see a flurry of inventors produce their own designs for solar cells, batteries, and generators. Eventually, these would evolve into the advanced solar tech we enjoy today.
From the First Solar Panels to a Solar-Powered Future
We’ve come a long way from a young physicist’s breakthrough to the renaissance of solar technology we’re are experiencing today.
And while our current tech far outpaces the capacity of those first solar panels, the cost per unit has also dropped considerably. Now, solar energy is more affordable than ever before and getting more efficient all the time.
And if you’re considering making the move to solar energy, you may qualify for financial incentives to help mitigate the cost. Check out this list to see what incentives are available in your state.