Solar energy has been around for a long, long time – since approximately 3,500,000,000 BC, in fact, when cyanobacteria harnessed solar energy for life. Little did those simple organisms know that they were onto something that one day would become a viable power source that could increase the quality of human life by sustaining our environment and decreasing our energy costs.
Without a doubt, solar energy has come a long way – and though it’s been around for millenniums, the most notable technological, political and economic breakthroughs in shaping solar as we know it started in the late 1970s. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights in the evolution of solar – and you can read the full history of solar by checking out our interactive solar energy timeline.
1978 – Power from the President
President Jimmy Carter signed the National Energy Act which established “feed-in tariffs” that mandated utility companies to buy back power generated by renewable sources. That gave private citizens using solar power generation systems the option to generate profit by selling excess power back to power companies.
1979 – The White House goes Solar
President Jimmy Carter gets solar panels installed on the roof of the White House during the Arab oil embargo. And thus, arguably the most important piece of real estate in America was partially powered by solar energy. In 1986, President Reagan had the 32 panels removed, and they were relocated for further use.
1980 – Powering up in California and Massachusetts
ARCO constructed what was the largest PV manufacturing plant in California – and went on to produce more than one megawatt of PV products in 1980.
Solar Designs Associates designed and built the “Carlisle House” in Carlisle, MA. Commissioned by MIT, the roof’s solar array was capable of producing 7.5 kilowatts and made it zero percent reliant on fossil fuels. The 3,200 square foot house produced a surplus of energy, which was sold to utility companies.
1980 — 1985 – Solar goes solo
Engineers began to look beyond centralized PV power stations for solar energy to the idea that individual buildings could become their own power production facility. Swiss engineer Marcus Real advanced that idea and sold over 300 residential solar systems in Zurich. That development changed the business of solar with a new focus on consumers who wished to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on centralized power.
1990 — 1999 – Efficiency on the upswing
Tremendous advances occurred in this decade. Efficiency of solar cells increased dramatically. In 1992, the University of South Florida produced a thin-film photovoltaic cell system that operated at 15.9% efficiency. And in 1999, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory further improved the efficiency to 18.8%. Also in that year, Spectrolab, Inc. developed a multi-junction photovoltaic cell with 32.2% efficiency – a vast improvement over where things started at the start of the decade.
May 2002 – A powerful and profitable solar-focused collaboration
The collaboration of Energy Northwest, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, and Newport Northwest LLC developed the 38.7 kilowatt White Bluffs Solar Station in Richland, WA. The 6,000 square foot facility uses multi-junction photovoltaic cells and began selling its power to Bonneville Power Administration for $0.04 per kilowatt-hour. In addition, the facility started selling “green tags (similar to carbon credits which can be used to compensate for other, less eco-friendly projects).
July 31, 2008 – Storage issue meets promising solution
MIT researchers deliver powerful news to help alleviate the issue of solar power storage. They announced that storage concerns could soon be dealt with by utilizing fuel cell technology to split hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water, and then recombine them for later use. That capability brought an element of further versatility to solar energy and addressed the primary issue faced by solar technology – its availability at night. Inspired by plant photosynthesis, the researchers developed a process to enable storing energy in a clean, affordable way.
2010 – Solar soars
2010 brought the installation of more than 50,000 systems. That was nearly twice as many systems as in 2009. The impact: a cumulative capacity of 2.15 gigawatts! Approximately 262 MW of the production units installed were connected to residential systems.
In July of 2010, the Solar Impulse project, headquartered in Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, achieved a sustained 24 hour flight with is fully solar airplane.
2012 – Around the world and in the toilet (in a good way)
On May 4, 2012, the Tûranor PlanetSolar, a fully solar-powered catamaran, completed a 584 day circumnavigation of the planet. The boat used 38,000 solar cells to charge a bank of lithium-ion batteries that could hold enough power to propel the boat for three days with no sunlight.
Alta Devices researchers developed a “LED type” solar cell in April that emits light as it produces – reaching 28.3% efficiency (the highest for any single-junction cell). And on May 31, Sharp achieved an impressive efficiency of 43.5% with their compound cell and concentrator system. August 20, IBM and associates reached an efficiency of 11.1% with their affordable to produce copper, zinc, and tin-based cells. Two days later, South China University of Technology hit 9.31% efficiency with polymer-based organic photovoltaic cells (OPV).
And rounding out the 2012 advancements, on August 14, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced the winners of their “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” A team from the California Institute of Technology took first place for developing a toilet that uses solar power to render all waste into hydrogen gas, water, and organic fertilizer. The new, inexpensive variety of toilets is intended for locations without access to modern sanitation facilities or clean water.
The Future of Solar…
As history always does, we can expect that it will repeat itself by continued interest and innovation in solar power. The increased momentum that the advances in solar energy have gained over time is a promising sign that it will become a more broadly installed technology in homes. As scientific diligence and practical applications yield better returns on homeowners’ investments, we’ll surely see the solar energy movement expand. Cost savings, more control over our energy, and the promise of a cleaner, quieter way to power our lives…the benefits of solar energy will steadily be realized by more and more households. It’s just a matter of time.
Article by Jim Noden, founder of Bright Eye Solar LLC, a solar installation company located in Lancaster, PA. He is passionate about what the future of solar has in store.