Think solar power is new? Think again.
As long as 2,300 years ago, people were trying to harness energy from the sun. Both ancient Greeks and tribes of Native Americans built houses into the sides of hills. This would heat the houses passively day and night; days as the sun shined overhead and nights, as the heat stored in the hills was released. About 2,000 years ago the Romans used glass panes in their windows to capture heat from the sun and heat their homes. They also erected the first houses made of panes of glass, similar to our modern greenhouses or conservatories, in order to sprout seeds and grow labile plants.
Solar power remained at this stage until Horace de Saussare invented and built the first solar collector in 1776. His cone-shaped collector trapped enough power to boil ammonia. The vapors from the boiled ammonia gas moved objects. It also served as a crude refrigerant. De Saussare built solar collector that were later used as cooking devices. Sir John Herschel on his expedition to South Africa in the 1830s used one of these solar hot boxes.
It wasn’t until 1861 that Auguste Mouchout built a solar-powered steam engine. It was costly, hard to maintain and not suitable for sale on a commercial scale. Mouchout’s steam engine incited more development. In the 1880’s the first photovoltaic cells, forerunners of today’s solar panels, were created. Unlike today’s versions, which are made of silicon, the first photovoltaic cells were made of selenium. Their efficiency was only one to two percent. By 1891, American Clarence Kemp patented the first solar water heater.
The Czochralski process, invented in the 1950s, was the first efficient way to pure crystalline silicon. With pure silicon crystals, Bell Laboratories made a photovoltaic cell with an 11 by the mid-1950s. By the late 1950s, architect Frank Bridgers built an office building with solar heated hot water. Not long after, a solar cell of less than one watt powered a small satellite launched by the United States.
Cheap oil prices dampened research and development on solar power. With the oil embargo of the 1970s, people once again look to solar power as an inexpensive, renewable and non-political source of energy. The U.S. Department of Energy underwrote a program to test over 3,000 different photovoltaic systems.
The Gulf War of 1991 spurred more interest in solar power. During this decade, more than one million homes in the United States switched to solar power.
Today, solar power is everywhere. Cities and suburban town install more and more solar panels on utility poles. Homeowners put panels on roofs and business owners cover carports with solar panels. There are more options than ever for solar panels for homeowners. Five solar thermal plants are under construction in the California Desert; another is operational in Nevada. With solar power, the sky is really the limit.
Emily is a blogger and contributing writer for residentialsolarpanels.org, a company that helps consumers learn how to become a solar panel installer and answers many other questions about the benefits of incorporating solar power into businesses as well as homes.