A Look at the Evolution of Solar Panels

The Invention of Solar Cells and Early Developments

Scientists have known about the power of the sun for almost 3 centuries now. The first real progress in the harnessing of solar power came in 1839 when the photovoltaic cell was invented by Edmond Becquerel, a French scientist. While researching photochemical reactions, the scientist discovered how substances assimilate light as an energy form. The 1800s saw several other developments in the conversion of solar power to electrical power like the discovery of a concept called photoconductivity (electric conduction based on light intensity) and the development of the first solar cell.

satellite with improved solar panels
Representation of Satellite Powered by Solar Panels

Silicon was first used to produce solar cells in 1953 by Bell Laboratories and they announced it a year later. Unfortunately, the majority of solar power applications in the 1950s were not easily commercialized. One implementation that paved the way for silicon solar technology was the U.S Navy’s dual power system, chemical and solar, for their satellite project that same decade. It came after relentless encouragement from a scientist and satellite technology expert, Dr. Hans Zigler. The silicon solar cells outlasted the chemical batteries by years. Due to the high expense of solar panels in the next couple of decades, the technology did not sell well to mainstream consumers.

Solar technology became more affordable due to the effort of Dr. Elliot Berman, who found cost-effective techniques like using lower qualities of silicon for fabricating panels. With the introduction of the Solar Power Corporation and the overall reduction in the price of production, solar energy systems became more normalized in the 1970s. The President of the United States in 1977, Jimmy Carter, even installed solar panels in the White House.

Use in Early Space Programs

Although solar energy did not launch as the cheapest power source for most applications, it was considered cost-effective for space programs. The first implementation of solar power in a space program was as a backup power option for the Vanguard 1 satellite in 1959. A year after that space expedition, a solar cell that was 10% more efficient was invented by Hoffman Electronics. In 1967, Soyuz 1 was launched as the first manned spacecraft that used solar cells.

Six years after this impressive development, a U.S space station known as Skylab with installed solar cells orbited our planet for another six years. It would have lasted longer if the solar cells had not deteriorated during the launch.

Evolution of Solar Panel Efficiency

While it’s been over five decades since silicon-based solar panels were first created by Bell Laboratories, their efficiency has witnessed rapid improvements over the years. Using research, several manufacturers have built panels that show up to a 26% increase in efficiency from its introduction to the world in 1954.

Compared to the lower-tier economy panels that have dominated the industry for years now, high-grade panels can generate up to 25% more electricity. There are several ongoing research projects into the possible increase of solar panels’ efficiency. A laboratory experiment that involved advanced solar cells showed a promising power efficiency of 46%. Although this kind of panels is highly efficient, the constituent materials make them expensive to fabricate commercially. As far as the cost of implementation goes, solar panels have become more affordable by 65% within the last decade alone. In turn, this has driven many homeowners to look to solar power systems as an alternative or backup for their electrical grid supply.