A Brief & Breezy History of Solar Power

So, solar power has been around for, like, a really long time. A lot longer than the Earth has supported life in general, or humans in particular. Humans have been relying on the sun for warmth and food since they climbed down out of trees and made the switch to bipedality. Clearly, a comprehensive history of man’s use of solar power would be lengthy, random, and largely uninteresting, unless you possess a keen interest in, say, man’s first sunburn.

However, a couple of early uses are worth mentioning. Ancient Romans built their bathhouses to have big south facing windows, still the best direction for capturing sunlight. Archimedes is said to have focused sunlight through mirrors to set enemy ships on fire. Forget ants when you can target battle ships!

Relatively little noteworthy happened in the history of men and solar power until the 19th century. In 1839 French experimental scientist Edmund Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect (photo = light, voltaic = energy). Woo! Solar electricity! Later that century, English electrical engineer Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductivity of selenium.

In the 20th century, Albert Einstein published two earth-shattering papers, one on the photoelectric effect, the other (rather more famously) on relativity. Guess which one he won the Nobel prize for? Yup, that’s right: the one on photoelectricity. Funny how those things happen.

Solar power really took off in the second half of the 20th century. In 1954, Bell Laboratories developed the first photovoltaic cell, made of silicon, that could turn light into usable energy, albeit not very efficiently. Although efficiency remained low, solar panels began to be used to power satellites during the space race. The 1973 Oil Crisis provided further impetus for the development of alternative sources of energy. Alas, people have short memories, and by the 90s were back to buying Hummers.

But between mounting worries over the environment and  The 21st century promises to be even better for solar. Efficiency is up, costs are going down, and a plethora of new materials and ideas guarantee lighter, more effective, cheaper, and more versatile solar power.

Now all I need is a condo association willing to listen!


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