What Is the History Behind Solar Energy?

While the idea of using solar power may seem new, it’s actually been around for hundreds of years.

There’s evidence that solar power was used well before the 20th century, but solar energy didn’t take off in a major way until the early 20th century.

Solar energy doesn’t emit carbon gas, which is why it’s proving to be a popular choice among environmentalists and climate change activists.

Here’s a quick look at the history of solar energy.

Early Stages Of Solar Energy

In 18th-century England, for example, wealthy landowners and businessmen funded the building of public parks and walks because they recognized the power of sunlight. Some even built temples and graveyards in the shape of a cross to worship the Sun and stay close to nature.

These early adopters were early advocates of solar power and recognized the potential of this type of energy. The problem was that they couldn’t capture enough solar energy to do anything significant.

They didn’t have solar panels or silicon-based solar cells (which were invented in the early 20th century and made possible the modern-day solar cell) to tap into the light of the Sun. But they did have lots of open space, as mentioned above, and a large number of glass windows, which are perfect for capturing the Sun’s rays.

The solution to this problem was actually found in another field altogether: hydroelectricity. And it was an Irishman named William John Gorham who first came up with the idea of using solar energy to generate electrical power back in 1879.

Gorham’s idea was to build large dams which could harness the power of flowing water. For example, a dam built across the River Shannon in Ireland was able to generate enough energy to light up a whole town. This type of dam, which is still in use today, allowed for the generation of cheap, clean energy and changed the world.

The concept of using solar power to generate electricity didn’t die, and for the next century, engineers, scientists, and inventors continued to explore this promising avenue of power generation.

Silicon-Based Solar Cells

In the early 20th century, silicon-based solar cells were invented and soon allowed for the mass production of solar cells. They’re more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity than other types of cells, and in some cases, can convert almost all of the sunlight falling on it.

These solar cells operated on a principle which was similar to that of a common candle. When exposed to sunlight, the candle will gradually burn down to its wick. So too will a silicon-based solar cell, albeit much more efficiently.

These early solar cells were rather expensive to produce, and it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that they became common and affordable.

World War II And Its Aftermath

During World War II, researchers explored every aspect of electricity generation, from power plants and nuclear fission to solar energy and batteries. This period, which lasted from 1939 to 1945, saw the invention of numerous devices and appliances which make our lives easier. For example, the flashlight, the electric razor, the electric drill, and the electric shaver were all invented during this time period.

The research done during World War II helped lay the groundwork for today’s solar technology. After the war, things really picked up pace as engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs searched for new ways to utilize solar energy. This search led to the creation of numerous new businesses, many of which have become very successful, indeed.

The Rise Of Solar Panels

In the 1950s, engineers such as Konan Kawasaki, who was a researcher at the Hitachi corporation at the time, began experimenting with ways to utilize solar power. Kawasaki is now credited with developing the world’s first solar-powered car back in 1957. This vehicle, which was an adaptation of a Ferrari design, used photovoltaic cells to generate electricity, allowing for the movement forward or backward at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour.

It would be another 20 years before solar power began to make its way into homes and businesses across the world. In 1987, the US Congress passed the Solar Energy Technologies Program, which was designed to help bring solar power into our homes. It was also during this time that entrepreneurs began creating businesses which aimed at making solar power more affordable and accessible to the average person.

Solar Energy Meets Modern Day

It wasn’t until the 1980s that solar power started becoming more prevalent in our society. By this time, engineers and scientists had developed various methods of storing solar energy, which made it somewhat more convenient to use. These included photovoltaic cells, solar thermal energy, and compressed air energy storage.

Another innovation which greatly contributed to the growth of solar power in the 1980s was the smart grid and its enabling technology, the internet. The internet made it possible for customers to monitor and manage their energy consumption in real time. This resulted in a large number of power stations going online, which provided consumers with greater control over their energy use and made solar power more attractive to a broader audience.

These factors, coupled with a desire to combat climate change and the increasing costs of fossil fuels, helped spur the rise of solar power in the 20th century. By 2023, there were over 1.3 billion solar-powered devices in use across the world, according to Statista.

Today, we’re still learning about the potential of solar energy, and new applications and technologies are being developed all the time.

Looking Forward

While the 20th century was the century of electricity and the combustion engine, the 21st century will see the evolution and revolution of alternative energy and sustainability.

The coming decades will see an explosion of innovation and development in the field of solar power, and it’s likely that the majority of our energy needs will be met by solar electricity in some form or another.

The question is no longer whether or not we’ll use solar power to generate electricity, but rather how we’ll use it. Will we store it in batteries for later use, or will we find practical ways to harvest the energy right when we need it?

It’s also important to note that while solar energy has been around for hundreds of years, it’s still in its infancy as far as society at large is concerned. We’ve yet to realize its full potential, and we’re only now beginning to see how much it can contribute to our energy needs. There is far more work to be done before we can consider solar energy as a primary source of power.

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