Most people know that solar power is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our world. These days you can’t watch TV or go outside without seeing an advertisement for a product or service that utilizes solar power. It’s almost as if the industry has caught on that people are seeking out more and more ways to harness the power of the sun.
But how did this all come to be? What was the beginning of the solar revolution? How were the first solar pioneers able to make the leap from idea to reality?
Well, the truth is that solar power has been around for a very, very long time. In fact, it existed before most people in the Western world had even heard of electricity!
In this article, we’ll take a look at how solar technology has evolved over the past century, as well as how future predictions for renewables and sustainable energy hold true today.
Early Days Of Solar Power
While not all solar pioneers were born in the 19th century, the industry did start to come into its own during the early part of this century. That’s due mainly to three factors.
- The growth of the electronics industry,
- The rise of the middle class, and
- The development of low-cost photovoltaic cells.
The first of these factors led to a huge increase in demand for solar-related products. For example, in 1905 there were only about 400 solar-powered refrigerators in use around the world. But by 1920, that number had swelled to over 50,000 units. During the same year, sales of solar ovens grew from 500 pieces to over 10,000 pieces annually. This type of appliance became known as the ‘modern-day kitchen gadget’.
The second factor that helped launch the modern-day solar revolution was the development of the photovoltaic cell, more commonly known as a solar cell. In 1908, an Italian physicist named Ossicini was able to develop the technology that would lead to the proliferation of solar-powered products. About a decade later, in the early 1920s, major companies like General Electric and Westinghouse invested heavily in the research and development of solar electricity.
These companies manufactured and sold solar cells for use in applications such as electric power generation and charging electric cars. The major turning point in the history of solar power came in 1932, when researchers at General Electric developed the first practical polysilicon solar cell. This marked the beginning of the end for the era of traditional crystalline silicon solar cells—the kind that are found in most solar-related products today. (traditional crystalline silicon solar cells)
The polysilicon cells were a big deal because they could be used in larger applications. Before this point, scientists had theorized that a larger solar cell would provide better efficiency. But thanks to advances in nanotechnology, the smaller the better when it comes to solar cells.
In the 1970s, researchers at NASA discovered that the efficiency of solar cells could be enhanced by using nanotechnology to create materials with better surface area. Over the past 40 years, this research has led to incredible improvements in solar cell efficiency. To give you an idea of how far we’ve come, in 2012 solar cells achieved an efficiency of 22.7 percent, which is more than double the efficiency of traditional solar cells.
The last factor that makes up the early days of the solar revolution are the residential and commercial refrigerators that were first made available in the early years of this century. These appliances used a ton of energy each day and were very expensive and complicated to operate. But the convenience of having a cold drink in hand without heating up the house has made refrigerators essential for every kitchen.
The first refrigerators were considered a luxury item reserved for the wealthy. In fact, during the early years of this century, refrigerators were so rare that the average person might not even know what one was! That changed in the early years of this century when residential and commercial refrigerators started becoming more common.
When the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, people became even more focused on conserving energy and reducing their consumption of goods. This is how the first energy conservation measures came about. People either turned off their appliances or set them at a lower temperature when unoccupied. This practice eventually led to the creation of what is now known as energy conservation standards. For example, in the USA the standard was initially set at 15 degrees when the refrigerator was not in use and dropped down to 5 degrees when it was in use. If you are not familiar with energy conservation measures, turning off your appliances or setting them at a lower temperature when unoccupied can reduce your energy consumption by as much as 30 percent!
The Growth Of The Industry
It’s only fair to say that the early days of the solar revolution were a bit difficult for entrepreneurs who wanted to get into the business of selling solar products. The industry was considered a ‘niche market’ and wasn’t nearly as big as it is today. Still, a number of companies were able to gain a foothold in the industry and grow from there.
For example, in the early days of the solar industry, much of the equipment used in photovoltaic applications was custom-made and the industry relied heavily on repeat customers. This is mainly because the technology was so new and the marketplace was still figuring out what the industry would look like. In addition, a lot of the equipment came with a one-year limited warranty, so there was plenty of room for growth.
Many companies prospered in this phase of the solar revolution and helped establish the industry as we know it today. Some of the biggest and most prominent companies include General Electric, Westinghouse, and Sunpower. But just because the industry grew quickly it doesn’t mean that it was easy. There were several phases of growth in the early days, and several major recessions that put a damper on the progress of the industry.
The Current State Of The Industry
Looking back at the early days of the solar industry, it’s amazing how far we’ve come. Not only has solar power become a common sight on our planet, it’s inspired the development of entire industries and created a new way of thinking about our connection to nature. So it’s no wonder why the future of renewable energy and sustainable energy is looking so bright.
These days, many big-name companies are taking an even more active role in the sustainability movement, seeing it as a way to reduce their ecological footprint and protect the ecosystem. In particular, many brands and businesses are turning towards ‘green power’ investing in renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, as well as using sustainable building materials and design.
For example, in the coming months, Apple will be replacing all of its traditional lighting in its stores and offices with brighter, more energy-efficient LED lights. In addition, the company has pledged to go 100 percent renewable by 2025. Apple’s approach is to integrate the light, the air, and the space in a way that minimizes its impact on the environment while still allowing for maximum productivity.
Similarly, in January 2021, Google announced that it would be bringing its corporate offices in London, Berlin, and Paris fully into the 21st century, by adopting a zero-waste policy and investing in sustainable energy sources.
The company will be powering its European cities with 100 percent renewable energy sources and implementing energy efficiency measures. In an interview with The Verge, Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google parent company Alphabet, said that the company’s decision to go green was mainly about reducing its ecological footprint and leaving a better world for future generations. Mr. Pichai also mentioned that the firm is looking to reduce its energy consumption by 10 percent over the next two years.
So, as we look at the future of solar power, it’s clear that the industry is evolving to meet the demands of a new generation. Whether it’s creating new products to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels or finding new ways of generating clean, renewable energy, there are countless possibilities for the future of solar.