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The Evolution of Solar PV
Harnessing solar energy for heat and power isn’t a new concept. In fact, as early as the late eighteenth century, scientists began experimenting with ways to capture solar rays to be used for heating. The earliest solar technology was known as the “solar oven,” which used an insulated box and layers of glass to achieve temperatures as high as 230 degrees for cooking. But solar technology experienced a major breakthrough in 1839, when a French scientist named Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel converted solar radiant light into electricity for the first time. Using two electrodes that were situated in an electrolyte, Becquerel invented the first solar photovoltaic panel in history, which set the industry on track to become incredibly useful.i
Fortunately for us, a lot has evolved in the solar photovoltaic industry since 1839. Today, solar panels are more cost friendly and efficient than ever before and fully capable of powering our homes, businesses and even generating electricity on a mass scale for grid users at large.
What advances have made this possible? In short, the answer is many. But most of the major advances have revolved around the discovery of new materials that can more efficiently convert solar rays into electricity and new applications for solar uses that are lighter, more durable, smaller and perhaps most importantly, cheaper. Here is a quick breakdown of how solar PVs have evolved:
Albert Einstein is credited with really putting solar PV on the modern-day map. While many of his predecessors had continued to build upon Becquerel’s discovery through various successful solar applications, it was Einstein who published his research on solar PV in 1904 establishing the “photoelectric effect” as a credible power generation source. By 1954 a company called Bell Laboratories (AT&T) had put Einstein’s theory into action by developing the first modern photovoltaic cell. While not very cost-effective (one cell cost $250 to produce a mere watt of electrical capacity), advances like these set the stage for solar PV to take off. The U.S. space program was one of the first reputable applications of these early, modern-day solar PV cells, which were used on satellites and decades later manned spacecraft and solar space centers.ii
The 1970s were a boon for solar. Federal policies supported under the Carter Administration helped drive costs down from $100 per watt to $20, which in turn increased solar PV production. Over the next two decades, the industry saw many improvements in the technology, specifically in the semiconductor materials, which continued to drive costs down. The semiconductor industry moved to a concept called “integrated circuits,” perhaps more commonly known as microchips, which essentially enabled solar PV cells to conduct more electricity on smaller devices.
In the 1990s, the industry made another significant leap when manufacturers switched from monosilicon materials to polysilicon, a much more efficient way to convert solar energy.
Today, solar PV cells are made out a variety of materials including monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon, amorphous silicon, as well as cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide/sulfide and costs have never been lower. In some parts of the U.S. solar PV returns are cost-competitive with traditional source of electricity generation, like coal.
Copper solar cables have also served as more efficient connectivity devices for solar arrays. As technologies become more efficient, companies have also found ways to manufacturer solar panels on a mass scale more cost-effectively.
Parallel to the growth in residential, commercial, and industrial solar PV applications in the decades from the 1970s through the 1990s, solar panels became a mainstay in the world of...well, out of this world. Space exploration has made use of light and heat from the sun since the beginning of the space age. First used in space in 1958, the fourth satellite ever launched into space was called Vanguard 1, which remains in orbit today as the longest-orbiting atificial satellite, used 6 5cm x 5cm solar cells to generate enough electricity to power the spacecraft's transmitter. Today, solar has been used in countless satellites and deep space probes, but most notably on the International Space Station where eight solar arrays measuring 115 feet in length produce 84 kilowatts of DC electricity to power the space station's many systems. Solar PV in space is here to stay!
International Space Station with Shuttle
Other advances include solar trackers that aim to maximize a solar PV array’s face time with direct sunlight. Solar trackers essentially follow the path of the sun to ensure solar arrays capture the greatest amount of sunlight at the optimal angle for more electrical production.
These trends are only likely to continue. Manufacturing companies are finding more cost-efficient ways to mass produce solar PV and technologies continue to improve the power of even the tiniest applications of solar cells. In some parts of the U.S. solar PV returns are even cost-competitive with traditional source of electricity generation, like coal. The result is that solar isn’t going away anytime soon – in fact, the twenty-first century is likely to witness a huge transition to broad and deep solar PV use.