There’s no doubt about it: the utilization of solar power is definitely on the rise these days. Many homeowners and corporations have realized that with a bit of initiative and investment, tapping into the limitless power of the sun can save a lot of money in the grand scheme of things.
Due to the rise in popularity, many are starting to look at just what the big fuss is regarding solar power technology. Our younger generations, through growing up with solar power in the form of such things as solar powered calculators , may make us underappreciate the rather long and eventful journey solar power technology has taken.
In this spirit, a look at the evolution of science may provide a better understanding of how solar energy came about and evolved into a great technology available to us today.
The Early Beginnings
Contrary to popular belief, solar power is actually the product of evolution dating as far back as 7th Century B.C. The earliest form of utilizing power from the sun was in the form of common adolescent tactics -early men used magnifying glasses to make fire and burn ants.
The Greeks and Romans then took the reigns in 3rd Century B.C. in the form of burning mirrors with which to light torches in religious ceremonies. The Chinese documented similar practices in 20 A.D.
This technique was further developed by Greek scientist, Archimedes , who found that reflecting the sunlight from bronze shields could set fire to the Roman Empire’s wooden ships that were used while besieging Syracuse.
The next step in solar power technology was through south-facing construction in order to obtain optimal warmth in colder weather. The well-known Roman boathouses first noted this in 1st to 4th Century A.D.
In the 1200’s, Anasazi people, ancestors of Pueblo people of North America, did the same by living in south-facing cliff dwellings. Of course, this is seen in many solar powered and energy efficient homes today as a way to utilize the sun’s cycle.
From there, innovation in the capturing of solar heat was realized in the eighteenth century when naturalist, Horace de Saussure utilized glass in a solar heat trap. This technique was later embraced by Sir John Herschel to cook food during his expedition of the 1830’s to South Africa.
The nineteenth century also saw further discoveries and innovations. 1816 was the year in which Robert Stirling’s patent was filed for an “economizer”, a heat engine that was later used to develop solar thermal electric technology. This system became known as the dish or “Stirling” system.
But perhaps the most notable and popular discovery of the 1800’s was made by Edmond Becquerel in 1839. His discovery was made through experiments with an electrolytic cell consisting of 2 metal electrodes in a solution that conducted electricity.
When this cell was exposed to light, electricity generation saw an increase, which we now know as the ” photovoltaic effect “. The 1800’s also saw the invention of the solar-powered steam engine, which became the predecessors of modern parabolic dish collectors, as well as the photoconductivity of selenium, discovered by Willoughby Smith. Finishing out the 1800’s was Clarence Kemp, who patented the first commercial solar water heater.
1900’s Solar Revolution
Solar power technology was revolutionized in the 1900’s at a seemingly exponential rate. New solar power materials were founded, as well as new ways of capturing, constructing and implementing solar power all over the world.
New discoveries started off the century with Wilhelm Hallwachs, who realized the combination of copper and cuprous oxide is photosensitive in 1904.
A year later, Albert Einstein published his work on the photoelectric effect, and in 1921 won the Nobel Prize for his theories on the subject. Polish scientist, Jan Czochralski, figured out a way to grow the single-crystal silicon in 1918. His methods are still used today in such solar cells .
Later in the century, throughout World War II, as a result the energy shortage of the times, solar power technology saw an increase in demand and development.
During the war, in 1941, it is amazing to think that more than half the population heated water using solar energy. However, as electricity rates decreased post-WWII and persistent campaigning of power companies throughout the country increased, these numbers fell.
After WWII, as the solar energy usage declined in the United States, solar technology began to spread as Japan saw an increased demand in solar water heating since many alternative energy sources were not available at the time. Around 4,000,000 solar water heaters were in use in Japan by 1969.
These numbers soon followed the trend that occurred America, however – as new energy sources surfaced, solar power declined. This dip in solar energy did not last for long, as the 1973 Oil Embargo brought on another wave in popularity for solar water heating.
Meanwhile, in America, the world’s first commercial office building using solar water heating and passive design was developed by architect Frank Bridges in the 1950’s. Also during this time, a number of satellites were launched into space, which utilized solar powered systems on board.
From that point on, solar power became the established energy source for space applications. The Solar Challenger , the first solar-powered aircraft, was built in 1981.
Solar power became versatile in application as the years went by – being used in both space and households around the world. “PV villages” such as the Papago Indian Reservation in southern Arizona, the world’s first of its kind, began to appear in late 1970’s and the photovoltaic systems saw an ever-increasing capacity.
The Papago PV system produced 3.5 kilowatts in 1978, and Solar Design Associates were able to create a stand-alone, 4-kilowatt powered home in the Hudson River Valley by 1983.
This period in solar power saw even more diverse application as it began to become integrated in railroad crossings, road signs, remote areas as the desert to both power homes and bring water, and microwave towers of Australia to expand telecommunications.
Today and Beyond
Today, the options are practically limitless. We have stretched solar power generating to as far as 1-gigawatt capacity in the United States. We have seen aircrafts and cars that are not only solar powered but efficient, reliable and environmentally benign.
Solar powered homes have steadily been on the rise, with annual growth rates of 20-30% in the United States, thanks to incentive programs and lower costs for solar power systems .
Solar power technology continues to develop new and innovative ways of utilizing solar power, including screen printed solar cells and solar fabric, which can be used to shade a deck or on the side of a home to generate power for the home. Furthermore, as solar power technology develops, the cost of solar cells is more affordable than ever before.
Solar power will soon make its way (back) into the White House as announced in October this year. Beyond the obvious and wise upgrade the White House itself will undergo next spring, solar panels and solar hot water heaters on the White House mean a very promising outlook for Americans as it shows the President’s strong commitment to solar energy. This will serve as not on political support, but to inspire all Americans to make the switch to smarter energy.
Though solar power has very aged and humble beginnings, as we can see through the evolution of technology, solar power will continue to develop and become integrated in our world for a cleaner and efficient way to power our lives.