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Solar Power: A Brief History

Aug 09, 2016

Image courtesy of goingsolar.com.au

Solar power as we know it today is a relatively young technology. Whereas other renewables, like hydro and wind power have long established histories – being used on an industrial scale even before the nations of the world started to electrify – solar power has only really been commercially available since the middle of the 20th century. The timeline below highlights some of the milestones, big and small, achieved in solar power’s history so far:

1839: French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel becomes the first person to observe the photovoltaic effect. This process, which involves generating electricity from visible light, will become the basis of commercial solar power over a century later.

1878: French inventor Augustin Mouchot demonstrates his solar power generator at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

1880s: Solar cell efficiency is below 1%.

1887: American chemist Edward Weston files a patent for an “apparatus for utilizing solar radiant energy”. Weston’s patent is an early attempt to commercialize solar power.

1954: Bell Labs demonstrates first practical silicon solar cell, with 6% efficiency. This is the beginning of solar power as we know it today.

1958: The American Navy launches the first solar powered satellite, Vanguard 1. The satellite was only the fourth satellite launched from Earth, and is the oldest artificial satellite still in orbit.

Late-1950s: Solar cell efficiency reaches 10%.

1961: The United Nations hosts conference titled “Solar Energy in the Developing World”.

1968: American inventor Roger Riehl creates the first solar powered wristwatch.

1978: The first solar powered calculator is created.

1979: The Carter administration installs 32 solar water heating panels on the White House. The panels were removed during the Reagan administration. Solar panels were again added to the White House during both the W. Bush and Obama administrations.

1985: Solar cell efficiency reaches 20%.

1994: Solar cell efficiency reaches 30%.

2008: A laboratory test by the American Department of Energy demonstrates a solar cell with 40% efficiency.

2009: The Ontario Green Energy Act expands feed-in tariffs for renewables in the province, encouraging the expansion of solar energy.

2010: SolarShare is founded, taking advantage of the aforementioned legislation.

2010: Global installed solar PV capacity totals 40GW.

A solar powered airplane, named the Solar Impulse, completes a journey around the world.

2016: Global installed solar PV capacity will to surpass 310GW by the end of the year.

2020: Global installed solar PV capacity is expected to total between 444 and 696GW.