History of Solar Panels - The Solar Panels Story


You seem curious my friend? The history of solar panels is very interesting! This will surely help you understand what the most important component has gone through just in order to generate enough electricity to power your home or building or your mini device.


  • The year 1839 marked the very breakthrough in the history of solar panels. From this day began the quest to generate more and more electricity from the incident sunlight.

    A French Scientist A.E.Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect during an experiment of an electrolytic cell. He observed that when two metal electrodes were placed in an electricity conducting solution, the electricity generation increased when exposed to sunlight.


  • In 1873 Willoughby Smith discovered photo-conductivity of Selenium.

  • Another achievement which was crucial and represents a turning point in the history of solar panels. William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans discovered that Selenium generated electricity when exposed to light, this happened in 1876. Earlier it was believed that only a liquid could be responsible for this to happen. This confirmed that even a solid substance had the same effect without any heat or moving parts.


  • In the year 1883 Charles Fritts an American Inventor, described the first solar cells made from Selenium Wafers. Thus the very advancements in solar panels were taking shape.


  • Another breakthrough took place and was very critical and forever changed the history of solar panels. Albert Einstein published his paper on the photoelectric effect in the year 1905.


  • The existence of a barrier layer in photovoltaic devices became known in 1914.


  • An American Experimental Physicist Robert A Millikan provided the experimental proof of the photoelectric effect in 1916


  • The year 1918 saw polish scientist Jan Czochralski develop a way to grow single crystal silicon (mono-crystalline silicon). These are extensively used in solar panels presently and the same procedure is used. The process is called the Czochralski Process.


  • Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his theory which explained the photoelectric effect.


  • In 1932 Audobert and Stora discovered the Photovoltaic effect in Cadmium Sulfide (CdS). This CdS is still used for manufacturing flexible solar cells.


  • Birth of the Photovoltaic Technology took place in 1954 in the United States when Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson developed the silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell at Bell Labs.

    The First Solar Cell capable of converting incident sunlight into power to run common everyday electrical equipment. This cell had an efficiency of 4% and later developments in the technology helped to achieve an improved efficiency of 11%.


  • In 1955 Western Electric started selling commercial licenses for silicon photovoltaic (PV) technologies.During the year 1956 William Cherry of U.S. Signal Corps Laboratories approached RCA Labs Paul Rappaport and Joseph Loferski about developing photovoltaic cells for use in the proposed orbiting Satellites.


  • Hoffman Electronics achieved 8% efficient photovoltaic cells in 1957.


  • Year 1958 witnessed very important breakthroughs which are important to the history of solar panels. T.Mandelkorn, U.S Signal Corps Laboratories, fabricated n-p silicon photovoltaic cells, which made the silicon cells more resistant to radiation.


  • Hoffman Electronics achieved another feat by having 9% efficiency solar panels, electricity generation was also improving as a result.


  • Space Satellite Vanguard I used a small solar array for powering its radios. Later Vanguard II, Explorer III and Sputnik 3 were launched integrated with PV Systems.


  • Again in 1959 the satellite Explorer VI was launched with a photovoltaic array having 9,600 solar cells. Each cell was 1cm X 2 cm.


  • Hoffman Electronics achieves 10% efficient and commercially available cells. They made improvements and grid contacts were used thereby reducing the series resistance, this happened in 1959.


  • In 1960 Hoffman Electronics again beat their previous efficiency record and raised the efficiency bar to 14%.


  • A 242 Watt photovoltaic array was installed in Japan on a lighthouse which was the world’s largest array in 1963.This installation was inscribed in the history of solar panels


  • NASA launched the first Nimbus spacecraft in 1964. This spacecraft was powered by a 470 Watt photovoltaic array.


  • Peter Glaser conceived the idea of satellite solar power station in 1965.


  • Again in 1966 NASA launched the first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, which was powered by 1000 Watt solar array. This was used to provide astronomical data in the UV and X-ray wavelengths filtered by the earth’s atmosphere.


  • Another breakthrough happened and this changed the solar industry. In 1970, Dr. Elliot Berman with assistance from the Exxon Corporation designed a solar cell with significantly lower cost per watt.

    This reduced the price from $100 per Watt to $20 per Watt, the cost was 1/5th of the original cost. During this time solar cells began to be used on warning lights, railway crossings, Lighthouses etc. This marked an important chapter in the history of solar panels.


  • The French used a Cadmium Sulfide(CdS) Photovoltaic system in 1972 to operate an educational television at a village school in Niger.


  • The Institute of Energy Conservation was established at the University of Delaware in 1972. This was dedicated to perform research and development on thin-film Photovoltaic systems and solar thermal systems. This was also the world’s first laboratory dedicated to PV research and development.This too was an important date in the history of solar panels


  • University of Delaware built “Solar One”, one of the world’s first photovoltaic (PV) powered residences during 1973.


  • NASA’s Lewis Research Center started installing 83 photovoltaic power systems on every continent except Australia in 1976. They were used for various applications like room lighting, vaccine refrigeration, water pumping etc.


  • David Carlson and Christopher Wronski of RCA Laboratories, fabricated the first amorphous silicon photovoltaic cells in 1976.


  • In 1977 the U.S Department of Energy launched the Solar Energy Research Institute , “National Renewable Energy Laboratory”. Also in the same year the photovoltaic manufacturing production exceeded 500kilowatts.


  • NASA’s Lewis Research Center dedicated a 3.5kilowatt photovoltaic system which was installed on the Papago Indian Reservation in 1978. This was the world’s first village PV system.


  • In 1980 ARCO Solar became the first Solar Company to produce more than 1 megawatt of photovoltaic modules in one year.


  • The first thin film solar cell exceeds 10% efficiency at the University of Delaware in 1980. This was obtained using copper sulfide / cadmium sulfide.This is another date which is an important chapter in the history of solar panels


  • Paul MacCready built the first solar-powered aircraft – The Solar Challenger in 1981. It takes its flight from France to England across the English Channel. It used over 16,000 solar cells mounted on its wings and produced 3000 Watts of Power.


  • This marked the beginning of a new era and also important from the point of view of history of solar panels.The First Photovoltaic power station of 1 megawatt went online in Hisperia, California in the year 1982. It was developed by ARCO Solar, with modules on 108 dual-axis trackers.


  • Australian Hans Tholstrup drove the first solar-powered car – the Quiet Achiever in 1982 – almost 2800 miles between Sydney and Perth in 20 days, this was 10 days faster than the first petrol powered car. He is the founder of World Solar Challenge.


  • Also in 1982, Volkswagen of Germany began testing photovoltaic arrays mounted on the roof’s of Dasher Station wagons, generating 160 Watts for the ignition system.


  • The worldwide production of Photovoltaics exceeds 9.3 Megawatts in 1982.


  • ARCO Solar dedicated 6 – megawatt photovoltaic substation in central California. This 120 Acre facility powered 2000 to 2500 homes apart from supplying power to Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Utility grid, this happened in 1983.


  • The year 1983 saw the Worldwide photovoltaic production in excess of 21.3 Megawatts, with sales of over $250 million.


  • University of South Wales broke the 20% efficiency barrier for silicon solar cells under 1-sun conditions in 1985.


  • ARCO Solar released G-4000, the world’s first commercial thin-film power module in 1986.


  • In 1992 University of South Florida developed a 15.9% efficient thin-film photovoltaic cell made up of cadmium telluride, thus breaking the 15% efficiency barrier for this technology. After this achievement the history of solar panels would never be the same


  • Pacific Gas and Electric company completed an installation of the first grid-connected photovoltaic system in Kerman, California in 1993. This power plant was having a capacity of 500 kilowatt.


  • NREL developed a solar cell in 1994 which was made from gallium indium phosphide and gallium arsenide. That was the first cell which exceeded 30% conversion efficiency.


  • The World’s most advanced solar-powered air-plane, the Icare, flew over Germany in 1996. The wings and tail surfaces of the Icare were covered by 3,000 super-efficient solar cells, with a total of 21 sq mtr.


  • “Pathfinder” a remote controlled, solar-powered aircraft set an altitude record of 80,000 feet on its 39th consecutive flight on 6th August 1998 in Monrovia California. The altitude achieved by “Pathfinder” is higher than any prop-driven aircraft till date.This marked for another important event in the history of solar panels


  • Subhendu Guha, a noted scientist who pioneered his work on amorphous silicon, led the invention of Flexible Solar Shingles in 1998. These singles were a kind of roofing material which converted sunlight electricity.


  • Spectrolab Inc. and NREL developed a photovoltaic solar cell that converted 32.3% of incident sunlight into electricity. This cell was made combining three layers of photovoltaic materials into a single solar cell. This breakthrough was achieved in 1999.


  • In the same year 1999, NREL achieved a new efficiency record for thin-film photovoltaic solar cells the efficiency of 18.8% achieved by the prototype cell improved on the previous record by more than 1%.


  • The cumulative installed capacity of photovoltaics in the whole world reached 1000 Megawatts in 1999.


  • Another chapter in the history of solar panels began when First Solar began producing enough solar panels each year for generating 100 Megawatt of power. This plant is the world’s largest photovoltaic manufacturing unit and it began production in 2000.


  • Astronauts at the International Space Station started installing solar panels on the largest solar power array to be deployed in space. Each wing of the solar array consisted of 32,800 solar cells. This feat happened in 2000.


  • Sandia National Laboratories developed a new inverter in 2000, for solar electric systems. This inverter increased the safety of the systems during a power outage.


  • Also in 2000, two new thin-film solar modules developed by BP Solarex broke previous performance record. A 0.5 Square meter module achieved 10.8% conversion efficiency, this was the highest in the world. And its 0.9 Square meter module achieved 10.6% conversion efficiency & a power output of 91.5 Watts - the highest power output of any thin-film module in the world.


  • NASA’s Solar Powered aircraft – Helios set a new world record for non-rocket powered aircraft reaching a height of 96,869 feet that is more than 18 miles (29.53 Km) above ground. This record was set by Helios in 2001.


  • The National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA), announced plans to develop a satellite-based solar power system that would beam energy back to the earth using a laser. This was proposed by NASDA in 2001.


  • During 2001 Terrasun LLC developed a unique method of using holographic films to concentrate sunlight onto a solar cell. This capability allowed the modules to be integrated into buildings in the form of skylights.


  • Powerlight Corporation installed the largest rooftop solar power system at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California. This 1.18 Megawatt system was installed in 2001.


  • NASA successfully conducted two tests in 2002 of a solar-powered, remote –controlled aircraft called Pathfinder Plus.

My friend you must have enjoyed reading about the history of solar panels, must have been a very informative journey about the breakthroughs achieved by our scientific community to make using solar panels a wonderful and profitable experience for all of us.




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