History of Solar Energy: All You Need to Know

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History of Solar Energy: All You Need to Know

Today, countries like Germany are using solar energy as the major source of energy to fuel their country’s need. A benefit is that they don’t have to worry about running out of fuel energy . This is a worry that can happen regarding conventional sources of energy or even nuclear plants.

So, while solar energy has its own benefits, why did it take so long to get into the mainstream?

The initial challenge was to make solar energy efficient and affordable for all. The entire form, modules and devices of solar power have undergone huge metamorphosis over the last few decades. A study of the history of solar power will make one aware of the immense work and efforts taken by past and present researchers. Experts in the creation of electricity from the solar reserve have played a significant role. Their contribution in making solar power energy the energy of the future can never be over estimated.

History of Solar Energy:

The history of solar energy is as old as the sun. It is hard to locate a specific time or event when  solar power was discovered. One can only acknowledge it as a gradual or a constant evolution.

The use of solar power began with an insight or acknowledgement of possibilities to try and capture the energy and use it for individual purposes. Constant brain-storming and breakthroughs led to the spectrum it has developed into.

Ancient history:

In around 700 B.C. fire was created by the concentration of sunlight through magnifying glass.

Historical archives reveal that in around 214 to 212 B.C. Archimedes, the Greek inventor, used a ‘heat ray’ created by reflecting and redirecting sun light with a series of mirrors to set the enemy ships ablaze.

Swiss scientist Horace- Benedict de Saussure invented the first solar oven in the year 1767 according to past records. Three glass layers were formed to cover an insulated box in order to concentrate solar heat in the oven. The internal temperature of the oven reached around 230 degrees Fahrenheit.

The true study and experiments with regard to the creation of solar power, however, began in the 1800s. With the industrial revolution taking the world by storm, the whole world awakened to the role of natural resources in the economic growth of the country. Machines and steam locomotives were run using a large quantity of coal. The rise in the demand of coal made people sensitive to the supply. It was primarily for this reason that people began looking for alternate sources of energy.

Coal, petroleum and other prevalent fossil fuels are exhaustible resources which would not last long if the existing pace of consumption and demand continued. Hence, everyone felt the need for an alternate source of energy.

Genesis of Solar Power:

Augustin Mouchot, born in the year 1825, was a French inventor who created the initial solar powered engine by converting solar power into mechanical steam power.

Believing that coal which fueled the Industrial revolution would eventually run out, Mouchot was inspired to find a new source of energy. He began pondering over the work of Horace- Benedict de Saussure and Claude Pouilet who invented solar oven earlier. He experimented a lot with heat, water and glasses. By 1866 he was able to develop the first parabolic trough solar collector, and in 1869 he built the largest solar steam engine. He even won a gold medal for the production of ice using concentrated solar heat.

In 1839, a young French scientist named Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered certain materials which when exposed to sun light produced electric currents in small amount. This was the discovery of the photovoltaic effect. Succeeding scientists later modified it.

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William Grylls Adams along with his student Richard Evans Day, later the same year, discovered the electricity creating properties in selenium and concluded that selenium photovoltaic cells showed an enhanced efficiency of 1 to 2 % in converting sunlight into electricity. Their experiments also proved that solid materials could create electricity without heat or motion.

Photovoltaic or PV cells are the cells that convert light into electricity. Photo means light and voltaic means producing voltage. However, it took 100 years since the initial discoveries for solar power to be a reality. An American inventor Charles Fritts invented the first photovoltaic solar cells by using wafers made of selenium.

Heinrich Hertz discovered that ultra violet rays were able to make electricity caused by any spark to flow between two electrodes.

Solar Heater:

The first solar heater came into existence in 1891.

Aubrey Eneas, a Boston resident, established the first solar power company called the Solar Motor Co. in 1900. He exhibited his giant sized reflector at an ostrich farm which was a popular tourist attraction. His display caught the eye of a large number of visitors and convinced them in the future of sun machine. Eneas constructed his first solar pump in 1904. Though his motor was not much of success, his readings and his experiments were. His scientific and technical data on solar heat conversion was of great value to the succeeding scientists. Where Eneas’s company was coming to a close Willsie’s opened.

Henry Willsie built two plants in St, Louis and Needles, California in the year 1904 with a 6 horse power facility and 15 horse power operations, respectively. Willsie, in his later patents, wrote that his invention was “designed for furnishing power for electric light and power, refrigerating and ice making, for milling and pumping at mines’ and for other purposes here large amounts of power are required.”

Frank Shuman shared the dream of his predecessor of creating an unlimited source of energy. After several trials and errors, Shuman constructed the largest solar conversion system near his home in Penn. The plant prevented more than 10,000 square feet of solar radiation.  He, later in 1912, with the changes implied by two physicists and a technical consultant installed a more advanced plant – The Sun Power Co. solar pumping station in Cairo. The Cairo plant was much advanced than the Talcony model.

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Albert Einstein had also published an elaborate description of how the photoelectric effects work. Around more than 50 patents and loads of journals, articles and books on solar energy by similar visionaries were in circulation.

Satellites and power stations first used solar power in 1958.The Vanguard 1 spacecraft had solar as a backup energy source.

Despite the rapid advancement made by succeeding scientists, the industry’s future remained in loop owing to the high demand and trust in fossil fuels and low trust in the concept of solar power by the vast masses.

Second World War did boost the demand for solar powered equipment in the US.  The oil crisis of the 1970s had the greatest impact. It was during the crisis that people acknowledged the warnings put forward by the visionaries for decades and the government too began to promote solar power energy hastily.

Modern History:

The Federal government of US established ‘The Solar Energy Research Institute’ in 1977, which inspired other governments of the world to follow suit. The federal government also initiated agreements and credits to entice people to contribute to the development of solar power. Owners received a federal credit of up to $2,000 who installed solar power in their homes from 1977 to 1986.

The work for the world’s largest Thermal electricity facility started in California’s Desert region in 1986, with a capacity to built 300 MWs of solar thermal electricity. The company though sold to some other group is still producing power.

ARCO Solar was the first company to produce more 1 MW of PV modules in a year. It had established the largest plant in Camarillo, in California.  Within four years it dedicated another 6 MW of PV facility in the Carissa plains followed by another in Hesperia, California.

After the energy crisis, from 1977 to 1990s, various parts of states installed a host of power plants to develop and distribute solar power. Solar One was a large scale thermal solar tower, power plant that produced 10MW of electricity. Established in 1981, the plant produced power for four years, from 1982 to 1986.

The US Department of Energy and an industry consortium flagged Solar Two- an upgraded version of Solar One. It was more of a model that demonstrated the feasibility of storing solar energy economically and efficiently even when the sun was not visible. The plant attracted interested investors, producers and consumers.

In order to facilitate the growth and use of solar power, the Senate passed a number of bills.

Solar technology has a history of more than 100 years of R&D. From just looking at the sun to capturing its energy, the industry has grown 360 degrees.

In the last two decades, most of the research was targeted towards making the PV cells more energy efficient and cost efficient. Also, reducing the overall cost of installation became important.

The  upcoming Graphene-coated solar panels will revolutionize the industry.


The last two decades have witnessed the multitude use of solar power cells. They are now used innovatively:

  • to power homes in remote locations
  • on railroad crossings
  • in batteries and electronics
  • in solar powered cars and aircraft

Solar power is the most rational power. It causes pollution in no form. Solar energy is not only a safe choice but also an environmental boon. An unlimited source of energy, the Sun is capable of producing enough power to satisfy the world. In these difficult times, it is imperative that we harness this energy and create a safe environment.

The history of solar energy shows that scientists have  been trying to find out ways to do that since decades now. In 2017, they have finally achieved success and solar energy is gaining popularity in different parts of the world. The research will now be taken forward and one expects to see more uses emerging.

By | 2017-08-15T14:15:10+00:00 August 13th, 2017|Categories: Blog, Photovoltaic Cells, Solar Energy|Tags: |0 Comments

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