The History of Solar Panels: Harnessing the Sun’s Power


vaguard satellite in space showing the power of solar panelsThe journey of solar panels started with the discovery of the photovoltaic effect in 1839. The first solar cell was created in 1883, but the first practical solar cell was only developed in 1954. The space industry adopted solar technology in 1958 with the Vanguard I satellite. The oil crisis of the 1970s spurred the growth of solar technology, leading to the standard and cost-effective solar panels we see today.

From Humble Beginnings

The solar energy journey began in 1839 with a French physicist named Edmond Becquerel. At 19 years old, Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, the principle upon which solar panels work today. He found that certain materials would produce small amounts of electric current when exposed to light.

However, it wasn’t until 1883 that the first solar cell was built. An American inventor, Charles Fritts, coated selenium with a thin layer of gold to form a device that produced electricity from light. Although it was incredibly inefficient compared to today’s standards, it set the groundwork for the solar panels we know now.

The 20th Century and the Space Age

The real breakthrough came in the mid-20th Century. In 1954, Bell Labs in the US developed the first practical silicon solar cell. This cell could convert sunlight into enough electricity to run standard electrical equipment. The New York Times reported this invention as the beginning of a new era, predicting that solar cells would eventually lead to a source of “limitless energy of the sun.”

The space industry played a vital role in advancing solar technology. Solar cells were the perfect solution for supplying power to satellites. In 1958, the Vanguard I satellite used a small solar array to power its radios. This marked the first use of solar energy in space, setting a precedent for many more space missions.

The Solar Revolution

The oil crisis of the 1970s led to a renewed interest in solar energy. The high oil prices prompted the search for alternative energy sources, leading to significant investments in the development of solar technology. In 1977, the total global photovoltaic manufacturing output was 500 kilowatts. By 1980, this had increased tenfold.

The Modern Era

In the 21st Century, solar power has become a significant part of our energy mix. Solar panels have become more efficient and cheaper, making them a common sight in many parts of the world. The cost of solar power has decreased dramatically, making it competitive with traditional energy sources. Today, solar power is not only sustainable but also an economically viable energy source.

Key Highlights:

  • The photovoltaic effect was discovered in 1839 by Edmond Becquerel.
  • The first solar cell was built in 1883 by Charles Fritts.
  • The first practical silicon solar cell was developed in 1954 by Bell Labs.
  • Solar cells were first used in space on the Vanguard I satellite in 1958.
  • The oil crisis of the 1970s led to a surge in solar technology development.
  • The 21st Century has seen a significant decrease in the cost of solar power, making it a typical and economically viable energy source.

Final Thoughts

The Dawn of Solar Energy in the UK

The United Kingdom has come a long way regarding solar energy usage and development. In 2021, the UK solar industry saw its first-ever sustained, subsidy-free growth across residential, commercial, and utility-scale projects​1​. The solar generation capacity added in the UK last year was the most significant, with a remarkable 36% increase from 2020. This surge has been attributed to rising gas prices, motivating commercial and industrial electricity users to switch to photovoltaics​1​.

The trade body Solar Energy UK highlighted that the 369MW of rooftop solar capacity installed in 2021 marked the highest volume added since 2015. This is a significant milestone, as the installations in 2021 were subsidy-free, indicating that solar energy has indeed come of age in the UK​1​.

As of December 2022, the UK had reached 14.6GW of solar capacity, with more than 5GW from rooftop panels. The outlook remains positive, with new regulations and initiatives expected to boost solar energy usage in the country. The Future Homes Standard supplementary building regulations will be applied to new homes from this year, government contracts for clean energy tenders will be held annually from next year, and there’s a pledge to remove what has been described as “unfair” taxation of businesses that install solar​1​.

The current state of the UK solar industry is best summed up by Jamie Vaux, commercial director at solar trade wholesaler Midsummer Wholesale, who described the situation as “indescribably insane.” He noted that they are recruiting for a dozen open roles, have new starters every week, and have opened new premises that quadrupled their warehouse space. Their design software saw 10,000-plus designs done last month, indicative of the rapid and sustained growth that the industry is currently experiencing​1​.

In conclusion, the UK’s solar energy landscape is vibrant and rapidly expanding. It is an exciting time for anyone considering investing in solar panels for their house, as they contribute to a greener future and can save on energy costs in the long run. If you’re considering solar panels for your house in the UK, it seems there’s never been a better time than now.