Skip to content
History and the Development of Photovoltaics. Bell labs solar cell

History and the Development of Photovoltaics. Bell labs solar cell

    History and the Development of Photovoltaics

    The very first discovery of the solar cell marked the beginning of the change in energy production. This change would be iterated over and over to make new progress in the field of solar energy by researchers and is still going on. The history of solar energy is a story of innovation that all started in the early 19th century.

    Solar Energy in the 1800’s

    In 1839, French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect at the young age of 19. He realized when electrons were in an excited state in a conduction Band, they could move freely through a material, thus creating a current. But this wasn’t widely recognized until Einstein wrote a paper about the power of solar for which he eventually received the Nobel prize in 1922. The first solar panel was invented by Charles Fritts in 1883 where he coated a thin layer of selenium with an extremely thin layer of gold. The resulting cells had a conversion electrical efficiency of only about 1%. This invention led to the launching of a movement for producing solar energy.

    Solar Energy in the 1900’s

    The solar era began in 1950 when Bell Laboratory scientists focused on photovoltaic (PV) developments and began utilizing silicon to produce solar cells. This breakthrough is credited to Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson which produced an efficiency of 4% only. This breakthrough led the US government to pour more money into solar cell technology. In the 1960s and 1970’s the production of solar panels was made possible but the downside was it was too expensive for mainstream consumers but scientists continued to develop solar energy technology to reduce the cost. With the rise of semiconductors in 1941, Russel S Ohl described a process of forming silicon ingots that led to the first P-N junction cell. Ohl cut a section from the ingot including the top, barrier, and bottom portions, and attached electrodes to the top and bottom portions, yielding the first silicon solar cell. The figure below represents the first-ever patented silicon P-N.EMF (PN junction Electromotive force ) cell.

    Fig 1: silicon P-N photo-EMF cellSource: US patent no. 2,402,662

    The image below is an advertisement photo that appeared in the 1956 issue of Look Magazine, show off the “Bell Solar Battery” to the American public.

    Fig 2: Bell Solar Battery advertisementSource: 1956 issue of Look Magazine

    Solar Energy in the 2000’s

    In the 1950s the world had less than a watt of solar cells powering electrical equipment. Fast-forward to the 21st century, 50 years of continued discovery and development of silicon and other PV materials and still ongoing, today solar panels provide electricity to millions of houses worldwide, power up buildings, satellites and provide clean energy all around the world.

    The global solar energy installed capacity is estimated to be around 728GW and is estimated to grow up to 1,645 GW in 2026. Solar energy has exhibited the most Rapid cost decline among energy technologies. The price of silicon PV cells in the 1950s was 76 US/Watt which significantly declined to 0.20 US/Watt in 2021. From 2000 – 2019 the were reduced significantly but the reductions started to level off after that. The figure below shows the trend in the reduction of the cost.

    Figure 3: trend in the reduction of the cost.Source: PVinsights

    Bigger factories, the use of automation and more efficient production methods have delivered economies of scale, lower labor costs, and less material waste for the solar sector. The average cost of a solar panel dropped by 90% from 2010 to 2020.

    Major types of Solar panels available today in the market are monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film panels. Thin films include cells made by different materials, unlike silicon solar cells. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

    The Future of Solar Energy

    Solar energy has advanced at a rate that is astonishing even to experts in the field and now promises to have a prominent role in the ongoing energy transition. According to the Solar Energy Industry Data (SEIA) for the last decade, the global PV industry has been growing at an average compound annual rate greater than 35%. It is for sure that PV deployment will continue to grow as the global energy portfolio transitions more towards renewable energy.

    The increase in the module power of the panels from 250 W to 500 W in the last decade resulted in the decrease of the relative contribution of the module cost to the total PV system cost. Silicon solar cells still dominate the market and it will take some time for other generation solar cells to gain market dominance.

    One of the key challenges is to reduce cost and improve efficiency, this can be addressed by coming up with new market competitive silicon wafer solar module manufacturing methods at a lower cost. Focusing on crystalline Silicon-based PV technology, this standardized industry has a steep learning curve and is well-positioned to meet the challenge of producing many terawatts of power. We are also reaching the theoretical limit of single-junction solar cells.

    Ultimately, tandem technologies can be a solution to tackle this problem however significant research is still required to enable this at low costs for the mass market. Given the fact that this technology is more than fifty years old, more research and development are needed to navigate diverse possibilities.

    System will deliver long-term energy savings to historic facility in Murray Hill.

    By the end of April, a state-of-the-art, ground-mounted solar power system will be completed on the historic Bell Labs campus of Alcatel-Lucent in Murray Hill that will generate 1.2-megawatts of electricity and approximately 2.5 million in cost savings to the company over the next 15 years. That’s enough electricity to power 200 average New Jersey homes annually.

    This unique project brings together ConEdison Development and Sunpower Corporation in a collaborative agreement with Alcatel-Lucent, whereby SunPower will design and install the array system of more than 3,700 solar panels which follow the sun’s daily movement and capture its energy producing rays. Con Edison Development, who will lease the land from Alcatel-Lucent, will also own and operate the system and allow Alcatel-Lucent to buy back electricity from ConEdison at a considerably reduced rate.

    “Solar power makes good sense today for utilities, business and homes in New Jersey, and is complemented by attractive incentives provided by the state,” said Jim Pape, president of SunPower’s residential and commercial business group.

    Interested in local real estate? Subscribe to Patch’s new newsletter to be the first to know about open houses, new listings and more.

    Ironically, it was Bell Labs that pioneered the development of solar power technology in 1954 by creating the first solar panels to power phone lines for rural American farmers. In fact, 3,600 Bell Solar battery cells powered the world’s first communications satellite, Telstar I, in 1962. Solar cells continue to help power satellites, space vehicles, the International Space Station and the Mars Rover.

    Today, Alcatel-Lucent is leading the way to utilize alternative energy solutions to power its facilities around the world. According to U.S Environmental Protection Agency estimates, the new solar system in Murray Hill will offset the production of more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over a 30 year period, which is equivalent to removing more than 8,550 cars from New Jersey’s highways.

    Interested in local real estate? Subscribe to Patch’s new newsletter to be the first to know about open houses, new listings and more.

    “Alcatel-Lucent has made a serious commitment to environmental sustainability, and this is one step we are taking to honor that commitment,” said Jeong Kim, president of Bell Labs.

    Michael Davis, senior real estate manager for Alcatel-Lucent who is overseeing the project, said the corporate goal was to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent and explore the use of other methods of using renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power to help reach that goal.”

    Located on a six acre “front lawn” of the sprawling 200-acre Bell Labs site off Mountain Avenue in Murray Hill, the solar power array will be eventually hidden by decorative fencing, well-positioned trees, native shrubs and other plantings.

    “We coordinated our site planning efforts with input from the local town planning authorities from New Providence and Berkeley Heights. In addition, we were careful in laying out the system on an open grass field to avoid trees being cut,” Davis said.

    With the escalating costs and environmental dangers involved in extracting fossil fuels from the planet, the need for renewable sources of energy like solar, wind and geothermal, are more vital than ever.

    According to the International Energy Agency, by 2050 nearly half the world’s energy needs will be supplied by renewable sources like solar power.

    “Around the country and the world, forward–looking corporations are bolstering their commitment to the environment by turning to renewable energy sources,” said Mark Noyes, vice president of ConEdison Development. “We are proud to be working with SunPower to help Alcatel Lucent fulfill its admiral commitment to sustainability.”

    Saved By the Space Race

    Scientists install the 3.5-pound Vanguard I satellite in the nose of its launch rocket. The first try lost power and exploded on the launch pad. The second reached orbit in March 1958. It was the fourth satellite to orbit (after Sputnik I and II, and the U.S. Army’s Explorer I). The first three satellites, powered by internal batteries, went dead after weeks. Vanguard I, powered by six photovoltaic cells, transmitted for six years. It’s still in orbit.

    Few inventions in the history of Bell Laboratories evoked as much media attention and public excitement as the silicon solar cell, known at the time as the Bell Solar Battery. The details about this invention that Bell disclosed at the press conference the company held in April 1954 greatly boosted interest in solar energy.

    John Yellott, a mechanical engineer who probably knew more about twentieth-century attempts to use the sun’s energy than anyone else in America, hailed the silicon solar cell as “the first really important breakthrough in solar energy technology” for that time period. 1

    In fact, according to a 1955 Newsweek report, many foresaw the solar cell’s “development as an eventual competitor to atomic power.” 2

    Technical Progress Continues in the Lab

    Technical progress continued, and in the next eighteen months cell efficiency doubled. But commercial success eluded solar cells because of their prohibitive cost. With a 1-watt cell costing 286, Chapin calculated that in 1956 a home-owner would have to pay 1,430,000 for an array of sufficient size to power the average house. This led him to the sober assessment that, “however exciting the prospect is of using silicon solar converters for power,…clearly, we have not advanced to where we can compete…commercially.” 3

    Hoffman Electronics, owner of the license to commercialize the Bell solar cell, begged to differ. CEO Leslie Hoffman saw its future in powering electrical devices in areas distant from electrical lines. “Consider,” he told a gathering of government officials, “a remote telephone repeater station in the middle of the desert….An array of solar cells and a system of storage batteries is the answer….Either heavy expendable dry batteries or fuel for a rather unreliable gasoline-engine charging unit has to be packed in to the site at great expense. The solar cell,” he emphasized, full of conviction, “is a much better answer.” 4

    The Silicon Atomic Battery Temporarily Eclipses the Bell Invention

    These officials, like most Americans, however, saw their salvation in a different type of independent power system — the atomic battery. RCA, Bell Laboratories’ rival, had come up with a nuclear-run silicon cell, hoping for a perfect fit with America’s emerging infatuation with the atom. Instead of using sun- supplied photons, the atomic battery allegedly ran on photons emitted from strontium 90, one of the deadliest radioactive materials.

    RCA made a dramatic presentation at its Radio City headquarters in Manhattan: David Sarnoff, founder and president of RCA, whose initial claim to fame was being the telegraph operator who had tapped to the world: “the titanic has sunk,” hit the keys of a facsimile powered by the atomic battery to send the message “atoms for peace.” 5

    What RCA did not tell the public was why the venetian blinds had to be closed during Sarnoff ’s telegraphy. Years later one of the lead scientists in the atomic-battery project revealed RCA’s dirty little secret: had the silicon device been exposed to the sun’s rays that afternoon, solar energy would have overpowered the strontium 90. And if the strontium 90 had been removed, the battery would have continued to work on solar power alone! The director of RCA Laboratories didn’t mince words when he ordered his scientists to comply with the ruse, telling them, “Who cares about solar energy? Look, what we have is atomic energy at work. That’s the big thing that’s going to catch the attention of the public, the press, the scientific community,” despite the fact that the Bell Solar Battery outperformed its atomic rival by a factor of 1 million. 6

    And right he was. The government persuaded Americans, with the help of the media, to dream of the day when their homes, cars, locomotives, and even airplanes would run on radioactive waste produced by nuclear reactors. The Illustrated London News chimed in, calling the atomic battery “a revolutionary invention which in time may have as far-reaching an effect as [Michael] Faraday’s” discovery of the means to generate electricity. 7 With this in mind, who needed the sun? Alas, powering novelty items such as toys and transistor radios turned out to be the Bell Solar Battery’s only commercial success.

    Martin Wolf, one of the first scientists devoted to photovoltaic work, recalled a company display “where under room lighting…[toy] ships traveled in circles in a children’s wading pool. The model of a DC-4 with four electric-motors… turning the propellers was powered exclusively by the solar cell embedded in the wings.” 8 With the Bell Solar Battery used solely for playthings, much of the initial enthusiasm generated by the Bell discovery soon waned.

    The Bell Solar Battery Finds Its Place in the Sun

    How could Chapin, depressed by this turn of events, help but wonder, “What to do with our new baby?” 9

    A colleague at Bell Laboratories, Gordon Raisbeck, did not share Chapin’s pessimism. He wrote, “Very likely the solar battery will find its greatest usefulness in doing jobs the need for which we have not felt.” 10 Dr. Hans Ziegler, a power expert for the U.S. Army Signal Corps who was sent to Bell Laboratories to evaluate the new device, came to a similar conclusion. After months of extensive discussions, he and his staff found one application in particular where the solar cell made a perfect fit for a top secret program — the development of an artificial satellite. 11

    Freed from terrestrial restraints on solar radiation — namely, inclement weather and nighttime — “operations above the earth’s atmosphere [would] provide ideal circumstances for solar energy converters,” the Signal Corps believed. Silicon solar cells theoretically would never run out of fuel since they ran on the sun’s energy. The other power option — batteries — would lose their charge in two to three weeks. The modular nature of photovoltaics also meant that cells could be tailored for the exact power requirement of a particular satellite. There would be no wasted weight or bulk. A tiny array could provide the small amount of power that the transistorized communication equipment on board a satellite needed, without encumbering the payload. The Signal Corps concluded, “For longer periods of operation and limited allowance for weight…the photovoltaic principle…appears most promising.” 12

    The secrecy of America’s space plans ended on July 30, 1955, when President Dwight Eisenhower announced America’s plans to put a satellite into space. A drawing that accompanied Eisenhower’s front-page statement in the New York Times showed that it had a solar power source. 13

    The civilian scientific panel overseeing America’s space program saw powering satellites with photovoltaics as immensely important, since relying on batteries automatically condemned “most of the on-board apparatus…[to] an active life of only a few weeks.” They noted that “nearly all of the experiments will have enormously greater value if they can be kept operating for several months or more” and decided it was “of utmost importance to have a solar battery system” on board. 14

    Based on the civilian panel’s recommendations, the Signal Corps was asked to take on the responsibility of designing a solar-cell power system for the program, called Project Vanguard. Its staff readily developed a prototype that clustered individual solar cells on the surface of the satellite’s shell. The group designed the modules to provide “mechanical rigidity against shock and vibration and to comply with thermal requirements of space travel.” 15 To test their reliability in space, the Signal Corps attached cell clusters to the nose cones of two high-altitude rockets. One rocket reached an altitude of 126 miles, the second 192 miles, both high enough to experience the vicissitudes of space. “In both firings, the solar cells operated perfectly,” Ziegler reported to an international conference on space activity held in the fall of 1957. 16 A U.S. Army Signal Corps press release added, “The power was sufficient for satellite instruments…[and they were] not affected by the temperatures of skin friction as the rockets passed through the atmosphere at more than a mile a second.” 17

    The Vanguard: The First Practical Use of the Bell Solar Battery

    The first satellite with solar cells aboard went into orbit on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1958. Nineteen days later, a headline in the New York Times revealed: “Radio Fails as Chemical Battery Is Exhausted: Solar-Powered Radio Still Functioning.” 18 Celebrating the first anniversary of the Vanguard launch, the Signal Corps let the public know that “the sun-powered Vanguard I…is still faithfully sending its radio message back to earth.” 19 By July 16, 1958, of the four satellites in the sky only the solar-powered Vanguard and Sputnik III, which was launched after Vanguard and also had solar cells aboard, were still transmitting. The small Vanguard satellite and Sputnik III proved far more valuable to science than the first two Sputniks, equipped with conventional batteries, which had been silenced after a week or so in space.

    The success of the Vanguard and subsequent satellites using transistors in tandem with solar batteries demonstrated the synergy between these two newly discovered semiconductor devices. The transistor allowed for miniaturized and long-lived electronics light enough for launchable payloads and reliable enough for an environment where future maintenance was not an option. Because the transistor had a low power draw, the surface of the satellite was sufficient for enough solar cells to provide the necessary electricity, guaranteeing the longevity required for practical space missions.

    The success of the United States and Russia with solar cells in space led Soviet space scientist Yevgeniy Fedorov to predict in 1958 that “solar batteries will ultimately become the main source of power in space.” 20 Events proved Fedorov right. Those working with satellites came to accept the solar cell as “one of the critically important devices in the space program,” since it “turned out to provide the only practical power source” for satellites within a certain distance from the sun. 21 As Rear Admiral Rawson Bennett, chief of naval research, succinctly stated, “The importance of [solar] power is that satellites can play a valuable role in warfare.” 22

    Solar-powered satellites gave America precise knowledge of its enemies’ capabilities and intentions both on land and in the sky. These satellites could also guide sea-based ICBMs, which became powerful deterrents. The Soviets would no longer consider a knockout first strike, knowing that the United States could retaliate by sea. Another series of solar-powered satellites, called the Vela Hotel, could detect nuclear explosions on the ground and in space. Their verification capability cemented the trust required for signing the nuclear test ban treaty, vital to the health and safety of the planet. 23

    The urgent demand for solar cells above the earth by the military opened an unexpected and relatively large business for the companies manufacturing them. “On their own commercially, they wouldn’t have gotten anyplace,” observed Dr. Joseph Loferski, who spent a lifetime working in photovoltaics. 24 Indeed, as the scientist Martin Wolf contended, “The onset of the Space Age was the salvation of the solar cell industry.” 25

    John Perlin has written and lectured widely on the history of energy, and solar energy in particular. He’s an analyst in the department of physics, and director for implementation of solar energy and energy efficiency, at his alma mater, the University of California-Santa Barbara.

    The History of Solar Energy: Solar Panels Then Now

    Widespread use of solar panels has soared in recent decades, but the idea of harnessing the sun’s energy isn’t new at all. In fact, there is an extensive history of solar energy. Plants have been using solar energy since the beginning of time to create nutrients, and humans started taking advantage of the sun’s power centuries ago. The Ancient Greeks used solar power to heat homes and baths, and Leonardo Da Vinci even designed a solar system to heat water in the 15th century. Though solar is the most basic form of energy, it’s seen tremendous advancements over the years. Understanding the history of solar technology helps us see how it’s bound to stick around.

    The First Solar Panels

    The first modern breakthrough in solar energy occurred in 1839 when French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic (PV) effect. a process that creates a voltage or electric current when exposed to light. Flash forward to 1883, and the next big leap in solar energy is made — New York inventor Charles Fritts created the first solar cell. This solar module consisted of a wide, thin selenium wafer covered by an even thinner sheet of gold. Its energy conversion rate ranged from 1 to 2 percent, which pales in comparison to today’s solar cells, which operate at an efficiency of 15 to 20 percent. Nonetheless, this was still a significant moment for solar energy and demonstrated the potential of clean power.

    While selenium was the primary component of the solar cell Fritts invented, modern solar modules are constructed with silicon. In 1954, researchers at Bell Laboratories realized that semiconductors, such as silicon, were more efficient than selenium, so they began creating silicon solar cells. Energy conversion rates for these cells were 6%, significantly higher than than the previous selenium cells. The issue, however, was the price. The cells were costly to produce for large-scale applications. These photovoltaic cells were used in satellites and consumer electronics like calculators, but it was too expensive for many people to install on their roofs.

    Environmental Activism Spurs Development

    This changed in the 1970s when an energy crisis forced the government to consider ways to promote renewables. Congress then enacted the Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1974 to promote the research and development of solar technologies. Additionally, the federal government began offering tax incentives to support the transition to solar and other renewable energy sources. At the same time, a major cultural shift occurred in the United States. The modern environmental movement sprung up, raising awareness of pollution and its consequences for people and the planet. This helped people learn about the benefits of solar over fossil fuels, and its popularity skyrocketed thanks to its benefit on the environment.

    Solar Panels Today

    Now, solar is more affordable than ever. Thanks to increased demand, a more efficient supply chain, and better resource allocation, solar is officially the cheapest electricity in history. As the affordability of solar has increased, so has the technology’s popularity. In 2019, the United States reached a total of 2 million solar installations. and as solar continues to evolve, this number is growing exponentially. People often think using solar energy is new but the idea of harnessing the sun’s power has endured for centuries, and solar panel technology has been advancing for decades. As we continue to face the environmental consequences of traditional energy sources, solar will become a necessary component of our future.

    Learn About Solar Power

    Interested in learning more about solar? Our team can answer any question you have about solar energy, so you can see firsthand why it’s become so popular.

    Who Invented Solar Panels? Discover the History of Solar Energy

    David Kuchta, Ph.D. has 10 years of experience in gardening and has read widely in environmental history and the energy transition. An environmental activist since the 1970s, he is also a historian, author, gardener, and educator.

    • Share
    • Email
    • History
    • Travel
    • Sustainable Fashion
    • Art Media
    • Holidays
    • Community

    Before the first modern solar panels were invented by Bell Laboratories in 1954, the history of solar energy was one of fits and starts, driven by individual inventors and scientists. Then the space and defense industries recognized its value, and by the late 20th century, solar energy had emerged as a promising but still costly alternative to fossil fuels. In the 21 st century, the industry has come of age, developing into a mature and inexpensive technology that is rapidly replacing coal, oil, and natural gas in the energy marketplace. This timeline highlights some of the major pioneers and events in the emergence of solar technology.

    The Age of Discovery (19th-early 20th century)

    Physics flourishes in the mid-19th century with experiments in electricity, magnetism, and the study of light, among other breakthroughs. The basics of solar energy are part of that discovery, as inventors and scientists lay the groundwork for much of the subsequent history of the technology.

    1839: At the age of 19, Frenchman Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel creates the world’s first photovoltaic cell in his father’s laboratory. His studies of light and electricity inspire later developments in photovoltaics. Today, the Becquerel Prize is given out annually by the European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition.

    1861: Mathematician and physicist Auguste (or Augustin) Mouchout patents a solar-powered motor.

    1873: Electrical engineer Willoughby Smith discovers the photovoltaic effect in selenium.

    What Is the Photovoltaic Effect?

    The photovoltaic effect is the key to solar PV technology. A combination of physics and chemistry, the photovoltaic effect occurs when an electric current is created in a material when it is exposed to light.

    1876: W. G. Adams, professor of Natural Philosophy at King’s College, London, discovers “the change in the electrical resistance of the selenium due to radiant heat, light, or chemical action.”

    1882: Abel Pifre builds a “solar engine” that generates enough electricity to power his solar printing press, which he displays in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, France (pictured below).

    1883: Inventor Charles Fritts develops the first solar cell using selenium coated with gold. It has less than one percent efficiency in converting solar radiation to electricity.

    1883: Inventor John Ericsson develops a “sun motor” which uses parabolic trough construction (PTC) to FOCUS solar radiation to run a steam boiler. PTC is still used in solar thermal power stations.

    1884: Charles Fritts installs solar panels on a rooftop in New York City.

    1903: Entrepreneur Aubrey Eneas’s Solar Motor Company begins marketing solar-driven steam engines to fuel irrigation projects in Pasadena, California. The company soon fails.

    1912-1913: Engineer Frank Shuman’s Sun Power Company uses PTC to build the world’s first solar thermal power plant.

    The Age of Understanding (late 19th-early 20th century)

    The emergence of modern theoretical physics helps create a foundation for a greater understanding of photovoltaic energy. Quantum physics’s descriptions of the subatomic world of photons and electrons unveil the mechanics of how packets of incoming light disrupt electrons in silicon crystals in order to generate electric currents.

    1888: Physicist Wilhelm Hallwachs describes the physics of photovoltaic cells in what is now known as the Hallwachs effect.

    1905: Albert Einstein publishes “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light,” explaining how light creates an electric current by knocking electrons out of the atoms in certain metals.

    1916: Chemist Jan Czochralski invents a method for creating single crystals of metal. This becomes the basis for creating semiconductor wafers still used in electronics, including solar cells.

    history, development, photovoltaics, bell

    1917: Albert Einstein gives a theoretical foundation to photovoltaics by introducing the notion that lights act as packets carrying electromagnetic force.

    1929: Physicist Gilbert Lewis coins the term photons to describe Einstein’s packets of electromagnetic energy.

    The Age of Development (mid-20th century)

    Serious research into the development of solar technology, based on the invention of monocrystalline silicon solar cells, leaves the laboratory. Like many other technologies, it emerges out of research conducted for the U.S. defense and space industries, and its first successful use is in satellites and space exploration. These uses demonstrate the effectiveness of solar energy, though most of the technology is still too expensive to be commercialized.

    1941: Bell Laboratories engineer Russell Ohl files a patent for the first monocrystalline silicon solar cell.

    1947: Passive solar houses become popular due to post-war energy scarcity.

    1951: Solar cells made from germanium are constructed.

    1954: Bell Laboratories produces the first efficient silicon solar cell. While weak compared to current cells, these cells are the first that can generate significant amounts of electricity—at about 4% efficiency.

    1955: The first solar-powered telephone call is made.

    1956: General Electric introduces the first solar-powered radio. It can operate during both daylight and darkness.

    1958: Vanguard I is the first spacecraft to be powered by solar panels.

    1960: A car with a solar-panel roof and a 72-volt battery drives around London, England.

    1961: The United Nations sponsors a conference on the use of solar energy in the developing world.

    1962: 3,600 cells from Bell Laboratories power Telstar, the first solar-powered communications satellite.

    history, development, photovoltaics, bell

    1967: The Soviet Union’s Soyuz 1 becomes the first solar-powered spacecraft to carry humans.

    1972: A solar-powered watch, the Synchronar 2100, goes on the market.

    Who Invented Solar Panels?

    Charles Fritts was the first person to generate electricity using solar panels—in 1884—but it would be another 70 years before they became efficient enough to be useful. The first modern solar panels, with a still-meager 4% efficiency, were developed by three researchers at Bell Laboratories, Daryl Chapin, Gerald Pearson, and Calvin Fuller. Those three pioneers stood on the sometimes-overlooked shoulders of their Bell Labs predecessor Russel Ohl, who discovered how silicon crystals acted as semiconductors when exposed to light.

    The Age of Growth (late 20th century)

    The energy crisis of the early 1970s spurs the first commercialization of solar technology. Shortages of petroleum in the industrialized world lead to slow economic growth and high oil prices. In response, the U.S. government creates financial incentives for commercial and residential solar systems, research and development institutes, demonstration projects for the use of solar electricity in government buildings, and a regulatory structure that still supports the solar industry today. With these incentives, solar panels go from a cost of 1,865/watt in 1956 to 106/watt in 1976 (adjusted to 2019 dollars).

    1973: An oil embargo led by Arab nations drives oil up 300%.

    1973: The University of Delaware constructs Solar One, the first building powered solely by solar energy.

    1974: The Solar Heating and Cooling Demonstration Act calls for the use of solar energy in federal buildings.

    1974: The International Energy Agency is founded to study and forecast energy markets.

    1974: The U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) is created in order to foster the commercialization of solar energy.

    1974: The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is formed to represent the interests of the solar industry.

    1977: The Solar Energy Research Institute is established by Congress. It is now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

    1977: The world production of photovoltaic cells exceeds 500 kW.

    1977: The U.S. Department of Energy is established.

    1978: The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) of 1978 lays the foundation for net metering by requiring utilities to purchase electricity from “qualifying facilities” that meet certain standards on energy source and efficiency.

    1978: The Energy Tax Act creates the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and the Residential Energy Credit to provide incentives to the purchase of solar systems.

    1979: The Iranian Revolution interrupts oil exports from the Middle East, forcing oil up.

    history, development, photovoltaics, bell

    1979: U.S. President Jimmy Carter installs solar panels on the White House roof, later dismantled by President Ronald Reagan.

    1981: Funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia, the first concentrating PV system goes into operation.

    1981: Solar Challenger becomes the world’s first solar aircraft capable of flying long distances.

    1981: Solar One, a pilot solar thermal project in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, California, is completed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

    1982: The first large-scale solar farm is built near Hesperia, California.

    1982: The Sacramento Municipal Utility District commissions its first solar electricity-generating facility.

    1985: Silicon cells that can reach 20% efficiency are created by the Centre for Photovoltaic Engineering at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

    1985: Lithium-ion batteries, later used to store renewable energy, are developed.

    history, development, photovoltaics, bell

    1991: The first lithium-ion batteries reach commercial production.

    1992: The Investment Tax Credit is made permanent by Congress.

    2000: Germany creates a feed-in-tariff program to stimulate the solar industry.

    What Is a Feed-In-Tariff?

    A feed-in-tariff is a government program that guarantees above-market for producers of renewable energy, usually involving long-term contracts to give investors certainty in the early development of new technologies, before they are commercially able to stand on their own.

    The Age of Maturity (21st century)

    From an expensive but scientifically sound technology, solar energy benefits from continued government support to become the lowest-cost energy in history. Its success follows the S-curve, where initial growth of a technology is slow and driven only by early adopters, then experiences explosive growth as economies of scale allow production costs to decline and supply chains to expand. While solar modules cost 106/watt in 1976 (in 2019 dollars), they drop to just 0.38/watt in 2019, with 89% of that drop happening since 2010.

    2001: Home Depot begins selling residential solar power systems.

    2001: Suntech Power is founded in China and becomes a world leader in solar technology.

    2006: The California Public Utilities Commission approves the California Solar Initiative to provide incentives for solar development.

    2008: NREL sets a world record for solar cell efficiency at 40.8%.

    2009: The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is founded.

    2009: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provides 90 billion in clean energy investments and tax incentives, including subsidies and loan guarantees for solar energy projects.

    2009: China introduces feed-in-tariffs to stimulate growth in the solar industry.

    2010: U.S. President Barack Obama re-install solar panels and a solar water heater at the White House.

    2011: Solyndra bankruptcy and investment fiasco slows solar industry growth.

    2013: World-wide solar PV installations pass 100 gigawatts.

    2015: Tesla introduces the lithium-ion Powerwall battery pack to allow rooftop solar owners to store electricity.

    2015: China becomes the world’s leader in installed solar system capacity, surpassing Germany.

    2015: Google launches Project Sunroof to help homeowners judge the feasibility of rooftop solar.

    2016: Solar installations in the United States reach one million.

    2016: Solar Impulse 2 takes the first zero-emissions flight around the world.

    2016: Las Vegas, Nevada, becomes the largest city government in America to be run entirely on renewable energy, including from solar panel trees in front of City Hall.

    2017: The solar industry employs more people in electricity generation in the U.S. than do fossil fuel industries.

    2019: The first offshore floating solar farm is installed in the Dutch North Sea.

    2020: It is cheaper to build a new solar plant than it is to continue operating an existing coal plant.

    2020: California requires all new homes to have solar panels.

    2020: The International Energy Agency states that “Solar is the new king of the electricity markets.”

    2021: Apple, Inc. announces it was constructing the world’s largest lithium-ion battery to stare energy from its 240 megawatt-hour solar farm in California.

    Although the world’s first official photovoltaic cell was created by a Frenchman, Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel, in 1839, the concept didn’t take hold in the U.S. until Bell Laboratories developed the first solar cell capable of converting solar energy into electricity, in 1954.

    The first object called a solar panel, made in 1883 by New York inventor Charles Fritts, was made by coating selenium, a mineral found in soil, with gold.

    • Sharma, Shruti, et al. Solar Cells: In Research and Applications—A Review. Material Sciences and Applications, vol. 6, no. 12, 2015, 1145-1155., doi:10.4236/msa.2015.612113
    • Adams, W. G. and R. E. Day. The Action of Light on Selenium. [Abstract]. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. 25, 1876, pp. 113-117.
    • Einstein, Albert. “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light.” Annalen der Physik, vol. 17, 1905, pp. 132-148.
    • Bukowski, A. Czochralski-Grown Silicon Crystals for Microelectronics. Acta Physica Polonica A, vol. 124, no. 2, 2013, pp. 235-238., doi:10.12693/APhysPolA.124.235
    • The History of Solar. U.S. Department of Energy.
    • Dorrier, Jason. Why the Price of New Solar Electricity Fell an Incredible 89% in the Last Decade. Singularity Hub, 2020.
    • Farmer, J. Doyne and François Lafond. How Predictable Is Technological Progress? Research Policy, vol. 45, no. 3, 2016, pp. 647-665., doi:10.1016/j.respol.2015.11.001
    • Fraas, Lewis M. Low-Cost Solar Electric Power. Springer International Publishing, 2014.
    • Green, Martin A. Forty Years of Photovoltaic Research at UNSW. Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol. 148, no. 455-456, 2015, pp. 2-14.
    • NREL Solar Cell Sets World Efficiency Record at 40.8%. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2008.
    • Renewables Are Stronger Than Ever as They Power Through the Pandemic. International Energy Agency, 2021.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *