The History of Solar Energy

You may be a bit shocked to find out solar energy technology is not new. True, the aesthetics and efficiency of solar energy have improved. But its use dates from the 7th century when early man used glass and mirrors to start a fire. The history of solar energy shows progress and an exciting innovation story.

The growth and changes in this industry have reduced the price of solar dramatically. A simple look at 15 years ago, you will realize going solar had a different meaning. We will look at a brief history of solar power and the major highlights in this industry. Let’s get started!

A Brief History of Solar Energy

The Beginning

Theoretically, records show the use of solar in 700 BC to make fires. Another widespread use of solar energy was creating sunrooms. Using large mirrors, they would concentrate sunlight in one area, a concept that is still in use today.

In reality, the solar energy history denotes contributions from various scientists. For this reason, there are extensive debates about who should be credited for their creation. Edmond Becquerel gets the credit for discovering that light could increase electricity generation by placing two metal electrodes in a conducting solution. It was known as the photovoltaic effect, which formed the basis for PV development.

Willoughby Smith, in 1873 discovered the photoconductive potential of selenium. In 1876, William Grylls Adams, a scientist, found that selenium produces electricity when exposed to sunlight.

In 1883, an American inventor, Charles Fritts, used selenium wafers to make the first design of a photovoltaic module. The event made it the first attempt to harness electricity from the sun. However, he did not build the cell even though he gets the credit for its design. 

Did you know Albert Einstein contributed his knowledge to solar technology? He published a paper with his discovery that exposing electrons to light liberated them. Not later than that, a Polish scientist, Jan Czochralski, discovered how one could grow single-crystal silicon in 1918. All these discoveries created the groundwork for the development of modern solar.

Early Adoption

Our modern-day cells use silicon and not selenium. The change resulted from the development of silicon photovoltaic cells in 1954 by scientists Calvin Fuller, Daryl Chapin, and Gerald Pearson. Most people have credited this event to be the actual invention of solar panels as it was the first time the technology could power devices for many hours. 

The invented cells were, however, inefficient but worked well enough. In 1956, the first solar panels were available commercially, but they came at a high cost, reducing the adoption rate. 

Another application of solar technology was in outer space, where it was installed in various satellites in the late 1950s. The satellites Vanguard 1, II, Explorer III, and Sputnik-3 relied on PV-powered systems. In 1964 NASA launched the first Nimbus spacecraft. The satellite ran on a 470-watt solar array. Later, in 1966, they unveiled a one-kilowatt module, the first orbiting Astronomical Observatory.

Steady Growth of Solar Power Adoption

In 1970, through technological development by American Dr. Elliot Berman, the solar costs reduced significantly. Initially, solar costs were at $300 per watt, later decreasing to $100 per watt. However, with Dr. Berman’s technology, the price dropped to $20 per watt.

Due to funding from Exxon company, the invented solar panels were more efficient and came at a lower cost than the ones preceding. They gave room for commercial viability giving rise to solar energy adoption, a tremendous technological turning point. Currently, the solar panels cost about $0.30 watt, and they have about 15% to 18% efficiency. 

If you are wondering what necessitated invention of solar power, it is a source of reliable and unlimited energy. Especially in the 1970s, when the effects of Arab oil embargo affected the world. The oil prices increased dramatically, making it clear that another energy source was necessary across the globe. Countries formed dedicated solar institutions to achieve this goal. In America, the Solar Energy Research Institute was created in 1977. Following this development, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the National Energy Act (NEA), introducing Feed-In-Tariff, which encouraged energy efficiency.

Since the 1970s, there was steady growth in the solar industry. The companies continued to make smaller solar cells that were less expensive. For each notable moment in the solar energy timeline, we have contributions from great scientists. For example, in 1981, Paul Macready designed and built the first aircraft powered by solar. The trend continued in Germany, where the first solar-powered cars were created. By 1990 solar had become mainstream.

Present Day Solar Technology

The innovation did not stop in the 20th century. In the 21st century, developments in this field created more efficient solar capabilities. The main reason for this is the dedication of governments to the growth of the industry.  Such policies included financial incentives that made it possible for individuals to adopt the technology.

In 2005, the Energy Policy Act, passed in the US, allowing a 30% investment tax credit (ITC) for commercial and residential solar energy systems. Since then, the policy has been extended for several years to encourage the adoption of solar technology. Currently, the solar investment tax credit is 26%, with the potential of scrapping off by 2022. In 2021, the rate of ITC will reduce to 22% for both commercial and residential solar installations. Afterward, only commercial projects will retain a permanent 10% solar investment tax credit.

With such contributions, it is possible to see how solar power has become the primary renewable energy source. Over time, it has passed the test as a reliable source of energy. The availability of solar has made it accessible to virtually anybody. There are over a million solar panel installation across the US. In two or three years, this figure is expected to double.


All the events above show a brief history of solar energy. The significant innovations that have led to the industry’s growth since the first use of the sun in the 7th century to start fires. Currently, the realized gains in this industry have set the world on a path of energy independence.

The future of the solar energy industry is bright, with many innovations in the pipeline. Some include solar-powered cars, solar roads, highly-efficient cells, and solar tiles. Dynamic SLR can help you be part of the change by going solar in Texas. Contact us for a free solar quote to start the transition journey from conventional electricity to solar power.