A Brief History of Solar Energy

The technology to derive substantial electrical current using light from the sun has been around since the mid-1950's when the first solar cell was created by Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson at Bell Labs - they developed the first solar cell capable of generating enough power from the sun to run everyday electrical equipment. A silicon solar cell was produced that was 6% efficient. They were later able to increase efficiency to eleven percent.

Anyone who is aware of the ability to harness sunlight into electrical energy just has to recall from Jr. High School Science Class that Electricity produced by a solar cell is only good if the sun is shining directly onto a photovoltaic solar cell.

With basic knowledge that solar cells produce Direct (un-fluctuating) current, it stands to reason that there are two, very costly obstacles that stand in the way of practical solar power: 1) how to convert the current from direct current (DC) to Alternating Current (AC) so that it can be used in the common household and 2) how to practically store the energy for use when needed after the sun had set or gone behind the clouds.

By the time solar technology had developed and become less expensive to produce, our nation's infrastructure had already been established and built around the standard of AC at 110 volts and 15 amperes. A big expense to the use of solar cells is the requirement to use expensive power inverters to convert it from DC to AC.

With help from Exxon Corporation in 1970, a significantly less costly solar cell was designed by Dr. Elliot Berman. His design decreased the price of solar-generated power from $100 per watt to $20 per watt. Although still costly, this was a giant leap into the feasibility of the use of practical solar power

In 1976, the NASA Lewis Research Center began to install the first of many photovoltaic systems on every continent in the world with the exception of Australia. Those systems provided power for vaccine refrigeration, room lighting, medical clinic lighting, telecommunications, water pumping, grain milling, and classroom television. The project took place from 1976 to 1985, and then again from 1992 to its completion in 1995. By the time the project was completed, 83 stand-alone systems were in place. These areas where systems were installed were obviously devoid of practical on-grid systems.

In July of the same year, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration which was the predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Solar Energy Research Institute. And in 1977, total photovoltaic manufacturing production exceeded 500 kW (kilowatts). This was only enough power to light 5,000, 100-watt light bulbs.

In 1982, the first megawatt-scale PV (photovoltaic) power station went online in Hesperia, California. The system's capacity was 1-megawatts and was developed by ARCO Solar. The U.S. Department of Energy and an industry consortium began operating Solar One, a 10-megawatt central-receiver demonstration project in California which established the feasibility of power-tower systems. During this same time, an Australian named Hans Tholstrup drove the first solar-powered car - the Quiet Achiever - almost 2,800 miles between Sydney and Perth in 20 days. This was 10 days faster than the first gasoline-powered car. Tholstrup is now the founder of a world-class solar car race, Australia's World Solar Challenge.

Two other significant from 1982 which shaped the history of solar energy; Volkswagen of Germany began testing photovoltaic arrays mounted on the roofs of Dasher station wagons which generated 160 watts of electricity for use in the ignition system; and the Florida Solar Energy Center's Southeast Residential Experiment Station began supporting the U.S. Department of Energy's photovoltaics program in the application of systems engineering. Worldwide, photovoltaic production then exceeded 9.3 megawatts.

In 1986 the world's largest solar thermal facility was commissioned in Kramer Junction, California. The solar field contains rows of mirrors that concentrate the sun's energy onto a system of pipes circulating a heat transfer fluid. The heat transfer fluid, used to produce steam, powers a conventional turbine to generate electricity. While researchers at the University of South Florida developed a 15.9% efficient thin-film photovoltaic cell made of cadmium telluride, breaking the 15% barrier for this technology, a 7.5-kilowatt prototype dish system that includes an advanced stretched-membrane concentrator began operating in Florida.

The first solar station to distribute electricity produced from solar collectors was Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in 1993, in Kerman, California. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (formerly the Solar Energy Research Institute) completed the construction of its Solar Energy Research Facility and became recognized as the most energy-efficient of all U.S. government buildings in the world.

In 1994 the first solar dish generator to use a free-piston Stirling Engine is hooked up to a utility grid and The National Renewable Energy Laboratory developed a solar cell made of gallium indium phosphide and gallium arsenide. This cell development was the first to achieve a conversion efficiency of above thirty percent.

Two years later, although not in the United States but worth mentioning, a solar-powered airplane, the Icare, flew over Germany. The wings and wings and tail surfaces were covered by 3,000 extremely efficient solar cells. The total surface area was 21 square meters.

The U.S. Department of Energy and an industry consortium begin operating Solar Two - an upgrade to Solar One's concentrating solar power tower. Until the project's end in 1999, Solar Two demonstrated how solar energy can be stored efficiently using molten salt economically so that power can be produced even when the sun isn't shining; it also spurs commercial interest in Molten Salt Power Tower Technology []

On August 6, 1998, a solar-powered, remote-controlled aircraft, "Pathfinder," set a record altitude of 80,000 feet after its 38th consecutive flight in Monrovia, California. This is higher than any prop-job to date.

The tallest Skyscraper in the city that was built in the '90's -- 4 Times Square in New York -- has more energy-efficient features than any other commercial skyscraper. The building includes integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) panels on the 37th through the 43rd floors on the south and west-facing facades to produce a portion of the building's power.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Spectrolab, Inc. developed a 32.3% efficient solar cell. This highly efficient cell resulted from the combination of three layers of photovoltaic material into a single cell. This cell was most efficient and practical when used in devices with lenses or mirrors which concentrate the sunlight. These concentrator systems [] are mounted on trackers which always keep them pointed toward the sun. The NREL also produced a record-breaking achievement in the niche of thin-film cells. It increased efficiency by more than 1% to 18.8%.

Today, with the price of petroleum topping $126/bbl, more and more people are looking to alternative energy sources to fill their energy needs. From using cooking oil as fuel in diesel cars to using wind and sun energy at the residential level, people everywhere realize they can no longer depend on the Middle East, or even their own governments to properly regulate energy. Individuals will need to be proactive in their efforts to supply themselves with energy.

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