When we think of solar energy in the 21st century, we think of smart systems powering our homes with the light from the sun and solar panels. While solar panel technology is relatively new, dating back about 50 years, the use of the sun’s energy to sustain livelihoods in fact began a number of centuries ago.
Our history with the sun has a far-dating and fascinating history, documented from as far as the 7th century B.C.! Societies, throughout time, have been using the sun’s energy in intelligent ways to facilitate their lives. From form the discovery of fire, to the vast commercialisation of solar power and domestic usage in today’s world.
The solar energy we have known to come and love as a renewable form of energy, has inspired some of the greatest changes to how we now live. Below, we will summarise the solar energy breakthroughs from the 16th Century to present day.
Ancient Uses of Solar Energy
Early uses of the sun focused on harnessing the sun’s energy for use as a heat source. Dating back to the Ancient Egyptian civilisations, buildings were designed in ways that maximised light entry and warmth.
From the 3rd Century B.C., the Ancient Greeks and Romans were using sunlight to create fire torches. Proving particularly handy for sacred and religious ceremonies.
The 16th-17th Century: Development of the First Solar Cell
- Fast forward to the 16th century, the first solar cell was designed by Swiss Scientist Horace-Benedict de Saussure in 1767.
- Seventy-two years later, further innovation and progress in the evolution of solar energy was made. At just 19 years old, French scientist Edmond Becqurel discovered the Photovoltaic Effect: voltage and electric current in materials can be generated upon exposure to light.
- By 1870, another milestone was reached where the discovery that light could be turned into electricity without heat is made.
- Moving onto the 1890s, the first commercial solar heat pump was patented.
- By the end of the 17th century, American inventor Charles Fritz created the first working selenium solar cell (in today’s era, silicon is used in cells for solar panels).
Up until this point, the contribution and experimental discoveries of various inventors and scientists had led up to the creation of the modern solar photovoltaic (PV) panel.
Early 20th century: The Modernisation of Solar Energy
- 1905 was the year a young Albert Einstein (26 years old at the time) published his work titled “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light.” Where he studied what became known as the photoelectric effect.
- 1917 Einstein gave a theoretical foundation to photovoltaics by introducing the notion that lights as packets carry electromagnetic force.
- By 1954, scientists at Bell Laboratories developed the first practical photovoltaic cell.
- By the mid 1950s the first solar-powered telephone call was made. Illustrating the further development and reliability in solar energy being recognised.
- A year later in 1956, the first solar powered radio was introduced by General Electric. The radio was able to function in the day and night.
- Just a few years later, the US experimented with the application of solar PV cells on Earth orbiting satellites. Since then and up to the present day, solar power is the accepted energy source for space applications!
- By 1958 a spacecraft called Vanguard I became the first to be powered by solar panels.
- In London 1960, the first solar car was introduced, with a solar-panel roof and a 72-volt battery.
- 1982 was when the first large-scale solar farm was built near Hesperia, California.
- Developments in solar continued throughout the 1990s, and emerging global economies began to grow their share in renewables (especially wind and solar PV) during this time.
The 2000s: Solar Energy Goes Commercial
- Mandatory targets for renewable energy are now set across the EU.
- We see the development of a competitive internal energy market, with renewables playing an important role.
- From the 2000s to the 2010s, more capacity is added to the renewables sector than any other (and this trend is continuing!).
- In 2012, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association, stated that ‘the solar PV industry installed more than 30 gigawatts worldwide which led to the cumulative global installations to be more than 100 gigawatts.’
- Solar panels become more efficient, convenient and easier to access for home and business owners. As of 2018, there were more than 1 million solar PV installations.
- During 2018, the UK generated 3.9% of its total electricity using solar power.
- 2019 saw the first offshore floating solar farm is installed in the Dutch North Sea.
- By 2020 it was cheaper to build a new solar plant than it is to continue operating an existing coal plant. Showing just the extent of our reliance on solar energy.
- By 2020 The International Energy Agency declared that “Solar is the new king of the electricity markets”.
- And finally, 2021 and 2022 is set to see renewable energy accounting for 90% of new power capacity expansion globally.
The Present Day: Solar Energy goes Global
Today, we continue to see the expansion and use of solar powered devices, infrastructure and transport. Investments into solar parks and farms (both the small and mega) continue to take place across the globe.
The historic advancements and current position of solar place the power of this renewable resource in a promising position. In terms of the UK’s solar future, it looks particularly bright as it sets to double its solar capacity by 2030!