What is the History of Solar Power?

Sabrina Lopez
July 29, 2015
5 min read

With rising energy costs, many people are turning to alternative sources of electricity to power their lives. This is especially true here in Arizona, where abundant sunshine offers residents a unique opportunity to tap into a clean and renewable energy resource year-round. But solar is far from new. It’s been around for centuries! But in recent years, as its popularity has grown, competition and advancements in manufacturing techniques have made solar power more accessible than ever before.

Here is a brief overview of the history of solar power so you can learn more about how solar energy started and how far we have come.

While solar power may seem like a recent phenomenon for many of us, its history can be traced back to the 15th century and Leonardo da Vinci, who experimented with rudimentary design techniques for harnessing the sun’s abundant energy. Three hundred years later, in the mid-1700s, Swiss physicist and alpine explorer Horace de Saussure invented the first working solar oven.

While variations on the oven concept are still a hobby favorite to this day, it wouldn't be until 1873 that the modern history of solar power began. English electrical engineer Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductivity of selenium. Scientists worldwide began experimenting with the electrical properties of selenium as it proved that light could be converted into usable energy. 

The next stage in the history of solar power came in the 1950s when Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson, and Daryl Chapin were developing silicon transistors and discovered their ability to generate electricity when exposed to light. They presented their findings in 1954 in the form of a small toy windmill and a radio powered by solar, and the New York Times heralded the discovery as "the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of harnessing the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization."

Two years later, in 1956, the first solar cells were made commercially available to the public. While the initial cost, $300 for a 1-watt solar cell, was out of reach for most, it was enough to begin a new wave of experimentation and discovery and a new dawn for the history of solar power. In twenty years, between 1970 and the mid-1990s, the U.S. saw a massive upswing in the usage of solar cell technology. These energy producers began showing up on railway crossings, navigational buoys, and offshore oil rigs.

Fast forward to 2004, California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, proposed the Solar Roofs Initiative, incentivizing the state of California to achieve 1,000,000 solar roofs by 2017! This brought national attention to the initiatives and incentive programs that could be available across the U.S. Then, across the country, only a few years later, in 2007, the University of Delaware achieved a new important milestone in solar technology when they reached a record 42.8% in solar cell efficiency! This breakthrough marked an important turning point where fewer panels, working at a greater efficiency, could drastically shift the return on investment in favor of solar energy.

By 2013, solar technology had improved so much that one of the most innovative applications gained worldwide attention. Solar Impulse, an airplane powered solely on solar cells, started its journey across the U.S., relying exclusively on the sun's power! The plane is in Hawaii and will head to Phoenix soon. You can check on the status of their journey here.

As you can see, solar power has a very deep history dating back to the 15th century. Solar has certainly come a long way and is not only helping families and businesses save money on their utility bills but also helping to create a cleaner, safer environment for the future.

If you're interested in learning more about how solar works and how to evaluate solar for yourself, we invite you to download our free solar evaluation guide.