Although solar energy has only recently started to gain popularity as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, this technology has been in development for quite some time. Just under 200 years ago, a French Physicist named Edmond Becquerel was experimenting in his Father’s laboratory when he discovered that Silver Chloride produces electricity when stimulated in an acidic solution. Also known as the photovoltaic effect, this phenomenon would lay the foundation for future breakthroughs in solar technology.
Although there were substantial contributions from bright minds like Charles Fritts, Willough Smith, and even Albert Einstein, it struggled to gain traction as a commercially feasible product for its first hundred years due to the energy inefficiencies of the element selenium.
It wasn’t until the 1950s when Bell Labs in New Jersey created the first silicon solar cell, which is what we use today. The silicon solar cell increased its efficiency to about 4%, which is many degrees higher than what selenium was able to achieve. Although this breakthrough pushed solar in the right direction to commercial production, one of its first applications was powering low-orbit satellites such as the Vanguard 1 in 1958.
Beginning in the 1970s, extensive research began attempting to bring down the cost to the point where it would compete with fossil fuels. One of the pioneers of reducing solar prices was Dr. Eliot Berman, who, with help from Exxon Corporation, was able to reduce the price from $100 per watt to around $20.
From this period of innovation to now, solar technology has only gotten more popular. Prices have dropped at least 10% every year since 1980, 19.2 gigawatts were added to the grid in 2020 (43% increase from 2019) and lowered the cost for panel installation to 50 cents per watt in some parts of the world.
Although it only produces a small portion of the world’s current energy grid, solar has made tremendous advancements and is only going to improve. If we could incorporate solar along with other sources like wind, hydro, and even nuclear, society has a chance to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint, allowing the Earth to sustain life for much longer.
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