A brief history of solar power

March 3, 2017



Solar cell technology has been around for over 100 yearsIf you were asked which came first: Solar power cells or coal-fired power plants, you’d probably opt for the latter. And you would be right... but only by one year!

That’s one of the surprising facts you’ll find in a short video covering the more than 135-year history of solar power.  

While the photovoltaic (PV) effect had been observed years before, the first working solar cell wasn’t created until 1883—just one year after Thomas Edison built the first centralized power plant in New York City.

From the video:

But this early solar cell only converted about 1% of the sunlight falling on it into electricity, making it no match for Edison’s coal plants.

For the remainder of the 19th century and much of the 20th, the promise of widespread solar energy distribution would remain just a dream.

That began to change in the 1950s, when scientists at Bell Labs advanced solar cell technology by creating a cell efficient enough to offer a reliable power source. The solar revolution was powering up.

As solar technology improved, the focus shifted to increasing the production of solar panels. As more solar panels were produced, the more affordable they became.

By 1977, the price of a solar panel per watt was about $76.00. Today, it hovers around $0.50. The cost of commercial solar, including all setup and installation expenses, is now just below $2.00 per watt and is expected to drop under $1.00 by 2020.

Also from the video:

All of this growth means that solar power is reaching "grid parity" all around the world. Grid parity is the point at which the cost of an energy source becomes equal to or less than the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE).

Grid parity is a key benchmark because it’s the point where solar energy becomes a financially feasible alternative to fossil fuels.

After more than a century, solar cell technology is finally overcoming the dual barriers of high cost and poor efficiency to become as widely available as the sunlight that powers it.

Related links:

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CARTOON: Unsure how commercial solar power works

INFOGRAPHIC: How commercial solar panels work

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