A Brief History of Solar Power. How did it Come to Be?

November 29, 2021

How did the whole concept of Solar Power become what it is today? Let’s discuss the history as well as the foundation that created such a positive concept for the future of Solar Energy.

early Use of the sun

The sun’s strength is what allows life on Earth to exist. Humans have been attempting to harness concentrated solar energy for a long time. From lighting fires, heating houses, and more recently generating energy to power contemporary homes and businesses. Historians suggest that mankind began lighting fires by focusing the Sun’s light through a magnifying glass as early as the 7th century B.C. The Greeks and Romans began using “burning mirrors” to light torches later in the 3rd century B.C. Early civilizations incorporated the Sun’s energy into architectural structures, creating “sunrooms” with large windows that channeled sunlight for heat and light. The first solar oven, a device that uses sunlight to heat food or beverages, was designed in 1767.


The photovoltaic effect, or the ability of a solar cell to convert sunlight into electricity, was first proven by French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel in 1839, and the development of solar cell technology, or photovoltaic (PV) technology, began during the Industrial Revolution. In 1883, one year after Thomas Edison launched the world’s first commercial coal plant, American inventor Charles Fritts created the world’s first rooftop solar array in New York.

In 1873, an English electrical engineer named Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductivity of the element Selenium (atomic number 34 on the periodic table). Professor William Grylls Adams and his student Richard Evans Day demonstrated in 1876 that selenium could be used to transform solar energy directly into electricity. In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts created the first photovoltaic cell using Selenium wafers.


In space, solar panels: Solar panels were employed to power various spacecraft, such as satellites, as the space age progressed. The Vanguard I satellite, launched in 1958, was one of the first to use a single-watt solar panel to power radios. Vanguard II, Explorer II, and Sputnik-3 all used solar technology in the same year. NASA’s Nimbus spacecraft was powered entirely by a 470-watt solar system in 1964.

Oil shortages in the 1970s: During a period of high inflation, the United States’ reliance on foreign energy resources was highlighted. We needed alternative energy sources because we were running out of necessities. President Jimmy Carter had solar panels placed on the White House roof at the time. This was an act to raise awareness about clean energy and to make a statement about the accessibility of solar energy to the public. President Ronald Reagan later authorized the removal of these panels, which President Barrack Obama later requested be reinstalled along with a solar water heater during his first term.

The first solar residence: “Solar One,” was built at the University of Delaware in 1973. The system, which was intended as a solar PV/thermal hybrid, allowed excess electricity to be delivered into the grid during the day and used at night. 

Improvements in conversion efficiency: Between 1957 and 1960, Hoffman electronics were responsible for several innovations in photovoltaic energy, increasing conversion rates from 4% to 14%. The University of South Wales improved this to 20% efficiency in 1985, while the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and SpectroLab Inc. partnered in 1999 to develop a solar cell with a 33.3 percent efficiency rate. By 2016, the University of South Wales has reclaimed the title of the most efficient solar cell, with a 34.5 percent efficiency.


In 1956, the first solar array became commercially available, however, at $300/watt the expense was far beyond the means of civilians. By 1975, the cost had reduced to around $100 per watt, and the price has continued to fall by at least 10% each year since then. The rise in demand, which resulted in over one million solar installations in the United States as of 2016, is due to the cost reduction.

These technologies have come a long way from their beginnings! To learn more about the full benefits and how to make the switch to solar!