Solar energy is one of the many alternative energy sources designed to limit or eliminate the use of fossil fuels to provide energy. Make no mistake, fossil fuels are still the world’s main source of energy. However, the number of people who are aware of the costs of continued heavy use of petroleum and coal, and not afraid to let their governments know about it, are increasing. And even more, people are now associating fossil fuel use with pollution and climate change, two of the more worrisome issues facing the human population today. With that said, it makes sense to develop technology projected to someday replace fossil fuels entirely and the most effective of these is a solar tech.
Solar technology started with the silicon photovoltaic cell invented by Daryl Chapin, Calvin Souther Fuller, and Gerald Pearson. These three American scientists created the first solar cell in 1954 (more than 100 years after the photovoltaic effect was discovered by Edmond Becquerel) at the Bell Labs in New Jersey. At that time, solar cell efficiency was estimated at 6% and production was very expensive. Another American scientist improved the efficiency rating to 14% and lowered production costs over the next few years.
It didn’t take long for new applications for the technology to crop up. Due to the explosive nature of fossil and rocket fuels, it became paramount for space missions to carry solar panels for energy production while in space. NASA also launched a satellite-powered entirely by solar energy. This became a time of significant leaps in solar technology development as solar panels became more efficient and less expensive. It would wait until the late 2000s though for technology to make enough progress to make solar panels affordable enough for purchase by the average homeowner.
Solar panels improved their efficiency over the years, going from 4% in 1954, 10% in 1959 and hitting 14% in 1960. Today, solar panels’ average efficiency rating is 16-18%. Combined with cheaper materials and production costs, solar technology is more cost-effective now than ever before. In the 1970s, solar panels cost about $20 per watt. Nowadays, it only tops $0.50 per watt. This improved cost-effectiveness made more people in the United States, especially in California, install solar power systems in their homes.
However, it sounds ironic to know that while the first major strides in solar technology were taken by Americans, the country is not the leader in solar power, in terms of capacity and usage. China leads the world in solar panel production, where they have seven of the top eleven manufacturing companies in the world. Germany is the leader in capacity, having more than four times the US capacity is installed systems despite having only about 16% of solar output received. And the rest of Europe is fast catching up. It is expected that Europe will dominate the solar energy landscape in the next few years.
Not surprisingly, it is in solar power innovation where the United States still leads the world. And with California being the first to require solar power systems in every new home, the landscape is set to change within the next few years. It is now time to man up and ride the solar wave.