Every month, without fail, one bill dips into the pockets of all Americans to take its share of their hard-earned cash: the power bill. Energy costs are on a constant upward trend with no end in sight. As electrical costs climb higher a more cost-effective alternative is found by setting our focus on the sun, or more specifically, solar energy. The foundation of solar energy is rooted in every day uses of humans since the stone age, but it’s not until recently that our advanced tools have allowed humans to harness its power as a viable energy source. Advances in technology directly affect the cost of solar energy which has led to its sharp decline. To get a better grasp of this concept, it is prudent to inquire where solar energy began and how it has evolved to its current position in the present day as one of the leading alternative energy sources.
Playing with Fire and Early Solar Uses
Harnessing the energy of the sun has perplexed man for thousands of years. In the 7th century B.C. humans used magnifying glasses to light fires. Burning mirrors, as the Greeks called them, were used to light religious ceremonial torches. Southern facing abodes with large glass windows were utilized by the Romans to effectively create early bathhouses. More recently in the 1800s solar-powered steam engines were developed for steamboats.
Since ancient times, the sun has been our ally on the quest for a plentiful energy source to power our lives. It wasn’t until the year 1839 that Edmond Becquerel discovered an effect that would thrust mankind into the future: The Photovoltaic Effect. Bacquerel, at age nineteen, discovered that when exposing certain materials to sunlight he could generate a weak electrical current. This became the basis for which a solar cell converts sunlight into electricity and would lead us down the path to the innovative solar technology boom we experience today.
In 1873, Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium had photoconductive potential, leading to William Grylls Adams’ and Richard Evans Day’s 1876 discovery that selenium creates electricity when exposed to sunlight. A few years later in 1883, Charles Fritts actually produced the first solar cells made from selenium wafers – the reason some historians credit Fritts with the actual invention of solar cells.
The first solar panels were installed by Charles Fritts on a New York City rooftop in 1884. At the time, the 1 to 2 percent energy conversion rate of these panels was groundbreaking, but they are microscopic when compared to today’s efficiency, which ranges from 15 to 30 percent. The feat represented a revolutionary stepping stone for photovoltaic solar panel innovation in America.
However, solar cells as we know them today are made with silicon, not selenium. Therefore, some consider the true invention of solar panels to be tied to Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson’s creation of the silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell at Bell Labs in 1954. Many argue that this event marks the true invention of PV technology because it was the first instance of a solar technology that could actually power an electric device for several hours of a day. The first ever silicon solar cell could convert sunlight at four percent efficiency, less than a quarter of modern cell capability.
The Modernized Solar Cell
The adaptation of this modernized photovoltaic cell using silicon created a tsunami of influences for the technology we enjoy today. Just four years after the silicon PV cell was developed, it was used in space. In 1958, the Vanguard I satellite used a minuscule one-watt panel to power its radios. Then, in 1964, NASA was responsible for launching the first Nimbus spacecraft, a satellite able to run entirely on a 470-watt solar array the equivalent power usage of a modern-day blender. In 1966, NASA launched the world’s first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, powered by a one-kilowatt setup, making it one-thousand times more powerful than the Vanguard I satellite.
Following the energy crisis in the 1970s, the United States Congress passed the Solar Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act, positioning the federal government to take advantage of recent solar energy developments. The goal was to make solar viable and affordable and market it to the public. Then, in 1973 the first solar home, “Solar One” was constructed by the University of Delaware. The system fully functioned on a hybrid supply of solar thermal and solar PV power. The home also boasted the first building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). This meant the solar panels were not installed onto the roof but they actually were the roof. A solar integrated rooftop is similar to the recent residential solar project established by Tesla, but this occurred over forty-five years ago!
The year 1981 held a significant achievement when Solar Challenger, the first solar-powered airplane, was constructed by Paul Macready. Macready was able to fly the plane purely from solar power across the English Channel from France to the U.K. This historic point in time launched the initiatives leading to the next influential flight phenomena in 1988 called the Pathfinder. The Pathfinder was a remote-controlled solar airplane that would set an altitude record of 80,000 feet. NASA would go on to break this record in 1991 with a non-rocket aircraft reaching 96,000 ft.
The Solar Century
The solar investment tax credit of 2006 has been largely attributed to the fifty percent average annual growth rate of the solar industry in the past decade. This last decade has also shown a 70 percent sheer drop for installation costs. As costs associated with solar endeavors continue to decline, the effort to promote solar energy has risen and with it the aesthetic of the physical equipment. Accompanying the reduced burden to your wallet and the environment comes bulky solar panels on residential rooftops. Some companies have accomplished a way of providing the same benefits of the traditional clunky panels with a low-profile aesthetic that doesn’t impact curb appeal. This Building Integrated Photovoltaic or BIPV technology is integrated directly into already existing roof tiles or shingles. For example, the Tesla Solar Roof integrates solar cells into the actual shingles on the roof. Solar companies hope to bring alternative energy into the mainstream by removing aesthetic concerns homeowners may have,
Another revolution currently occurring in the solar industry following sharp declines in cost are floating solar farms. ‘Float-o-voltaics’ as some call them, could generate large amounts of electricity without taking up valuable real estate on land. Solar panels generate about 1 percent of the nation’s energy needs. New research by scientists at the federal government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that float-o-voltaics installed on just one-fourth of the nation’s manmade reservoirs would be able to generate about 10 percent of U.S. energy needs.
Humans have had a smoldering relationship with the sun since the beginning of time, from the humble beginnings when man mastered the art of fire, allowing civilization to prosper, to now. The sun still plays a vital role in modern civilization and with recent advances in technology, we may further rely on her for our ever-expanding energy needs. Our casual relationship with the flaming ball of gas in the center of our universe may become more intimate in the near future.
“News Release: NREL Details Great Potential for Floating PV Systems.” NREL.gov, www.nrel.gov/news/press/2018/nrel-details-great-potential-for-floating-pv-systems.html.
“Solar Industry Research Data.” SEIA, www.seia.org/solar-industry-research-data.
“Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC).” SEIA, www.seia.org/initiatives/solar-investment-tax-credit-itc.
“A Brief History of Solar Panels.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 22 Apr. 2019, www.smithsonianmag.com/sponsored/brief-history-solar-panels-180972006/.
SHR Energy Management has delivered comprehensive solar energy solutions for over a decade. SHR was one of the earliest developers of solar installations in the Northeast U.S. under the leadership of Founder and Chief Executive Noel Lafayette. With a comprehensive understanding of every stage of solar development, Noel demonstrates a deep knowledge of solar industry complexities, including regulatory matters, financial incentives, and renewable energy credit markets. SHR is capable of handling commercial, municipal, and utility projects ranging in size from 200kw to 25MW with access to over $500 million in capital funds. SHR is experienced in developing a wide variety of energy cost-saving projects, along with access to financing sources, knowledge of state/local regulations and incentives. This combination of the elements allows SHR Energy Management to move quickly with unmatched flexibility and transparency in our approach. For more information, contact us today.