Solar power has been known about for a long time. Although the capacity of sunlight to generate a charge had been understood since the early 19th century, it took around another 100 years for science to create workable solar panels to harness this power.
Photovoltaic effect, the conductivity resulting from the build-up of charge between two electrodes under direct sunlight, was first noted by French physicist Becquerel in 1839. Although some experiments had attempted to harness the tiny charges that could be harnessed, using primitive strips of selenium bound with gold connectors, they barely produced enough wattage to make the needle move
As late as 1905 Albert Einstein had established the physical properties of Photoelectric Effect, but the technology simply did not exist to support his theories. It would take until 1954 for Bell Laboratories to come up with a workable selenium cell designed to produce a constant charge.
Even then, the reception was lukewarm. The main problem was that 1 watt of power generated through this array cost $250 in manufacturing and production costs; a similar amount of power generated from coal cost around $2. There seemed to be nobody interested in finding a practical use for the technology.
Use in Space
Salvation came from the heavens, and the space race was a great accelerator of events. From 1957 artificial satellites orbited the earth, but their limited battery life meant that they could only effectively transmit for a few days or weeks. In 1958 Bell’s array powered the US Navy satellite Vanguard 1, which allowed it to transmit for 7 years until its transmitter failed; amazingly, it is still in orbit today and shows no signs of stopping.
The Gradual Rise
The success of Vanguard 1 meant the widespread adoption of solar cell technology for space missions. As orbiting spacecraft greeted the sunrise once every 90 minutes, it seemed a perfect solution. By 1973 the solar cell was not only helping probes make the most of every bit of sunlight on their way to the farthest reaches of the solar system, and was powering life support systems on space stations. This also led to new manufacturing techniques and a lower unit cost for the technology. However, even at this point, solar panels on Earth still cost over $100 to produce 1 watt of electricity. Apart from spacecraft and ships, there seemed to be few practical applications for solar panels.
Solar Energy as an Eco Friendly Alternative
The Oil Crisis of 1973 led to renewed efforts to make the technology workable. With Middle Eastern producers snubbing the west, governments realised just how acutely vulnerable their energy supply was and sought alternatives. This led to the development of solar panel companies by the major petroleum producers, and the invention of thin selenium strips sandwiched under sheets of glass. Efficiency also increased, allowing production costs of around $1 per watt – lower than coal. By 1979 a 600 watt array was providing lift for the world’s first solar-powered aircraft – the Gossamer Penguin. Solar power was here to stay.
People like you and I can now take advantage of solar energy by installing solar panels in our home. Solar Contact can provide information on different solutions for solar energy in the home and put you in contact with local solar energy experts.