A quick history of solar energy

Using the sun to power our lives is nothing new. Have you ever wondered how humans went from looking at the sun and seeing its power in nature, to actually utilising and controlling it’s rays to fuel our modern society? Neither did we. But when a 7 year old asks ‘how did we know to use the sun?’ someone from Progress Electrical is going home and finding out. That someone is me.
The BC years
Solar technology is nothing new. Sometime around the 7th century BC, magnifying glasses were used to make fire. By the 3rd century BC, Greeks and Romans were using special burning mirrors to harness the sun to light sacred torches for their religious ceremonies.

Greek legend describes how the scientist Archimedes used bronze shields to reflect the sun’s rays and set fire to the ships of the Roman Empire as they set siege to Syracuse. While there’s no evidence to back this up, in 1973, the Greek navy recreated the experiment and managed to set fire to a wooden ship 50 metres away. Please don’t try this at home.

1st to 6th Century AD
The famous Roman bathhouses started including large south facing windows to harness the heat of the sun during the day.

1767 to 1838
In 1767, Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure was credited with building the world’s first solar collector. In the early 1800’s, Robert Stirling, a minister of the Church of Scotland, built heat engines in his workshop in his spare time.

The photovoltaic effect
1839 was the year things really changed when French scientist Edmond Becquerel, detects the photovoltaic effect while experimenting electricity. What’s the photovoltaic effect? Basically, it’s the process of converting light into electricity. For a more detailed explanation, check out this Encyclopaedia Britannica page.

1840 to 1954
The next 120 years or so were to see a plethora of ideas, discoveries and developments. Scientists such as Willoughby Smith, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day would all contribute until in 1954, Bell Labs developed the silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell – the first solar cell capable of converting enough solar energy to run electrical equipment.

Solar goes commercial
In 1955, Western Electric starts to sell commercial licences for silicon photovoltaic (PV) technologies. And the rest, as they say, is history. NASA starts using solar tech in 1958 onboard Vanguard 1, the first satellite to have solar electric power. During the 1970’s, the cost for solar cells drops from $100 a watt to $20 a watt. Could solar be put to real everyday use? It would seem so. By 1982, global photovoltaic production exceeded 9.3 megawatts. By the following year, that rose to 21.3 megawatts with sales exceeding $250 million. By the end of 2018, global cumulative installed PV capacity reached about 512 gigawatts (GW). Solar energy is now affordable, easily accessible and has many well documented benefits for the environment. And we’re ready for the next time a 7-year-old asks about solar energy. Afterall, it’s their future we’re protecting.

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