The Complete History of Solar Panels (It’s Very Cool!)

French Scientist, Edmond Becquerel, Discovered the Photovoltaic Effect in 1839

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Solar Power Cell Technology Invented

Who invented solar panels anyway? Well, it wasn’t just one person. Throughout this article we’ll dive into the history of solar panels. We’ll learn how the technology first came to be, how presidents were paved the way, and what we can expect for the future of solar.

It began a long time ago, in the 1800s, scientists started figuring out how to use the sun to make electricity. In 1839, a French scientist named Edmond Becquerel found something important called the photovoltaic effect, producing electricity from light.

More scientists became interested, and by the 1950s, scientists at Bell Labs had created the first functional silicon solar cell.

Even former United States President Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House, although later on, Ronald Reagan would take them off. Barack Obama brought them back, showing leaders like using solar energy.

Solar panel technology improved, with achievements like a solar-powered plane flying across the continent and another going around the world. In the past, people used burning mirrors for sun heat. Still, photovoltaic technology changed how we capture and use the sun’s radiant energy.

Solar Panels as a Viable Energy Alternative

Bell Laboratories Played a Significant Role in the Development of Solar Technology
Bell Laboratories Played a Significant Role in the Development of Solar Technology

In 1954, Bell Laboratories made the first practical silicon solar cell, able to power everyday devices.

Over the years, advancements at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) improved solar technology, especially semiconductors made from silicon. These semiconductors enhance a solar cell’s ability to capture sunlight and convert it into usable energy.

1839Photovoltaic effect is discovered
1954Creation of the first practical silicon solar cell at Bell Laboratories
1958Vanguard I satellite, powered by solar cells, launches
1970’sDevelopment of more efficient crystalline silicon solar cells

Different types, like monocrystalline silicon and thin-film cells, offer unique benefits in efficiency and manufacturing.

Albert Einstein’s work on the photoelectric effect and Jan Czochralski’s methods for growing silicon crystals laid the foundation for these technologies.

Ongoing research aims to boost the efficiency of photovoltaic cells, making solar energy a more practical choice. Contemporary silicon-based cells can achieve efficiencies greater than 20%, with some exceeding 25%.

Once considered niche and expensive, solar energy has become a competitive and reliable energy source, playing a vital role in reducing reliance on fossil fuels and addressing climate change.

Cost of solar over time

Solar panels used to be really expensive in the 1970s, costing about $76.67 per watt. But thanks to better technology and more efficient manufacturing, the prices dropped a lot.

By 2010, they were around $2.50 per watt; by early 2017, they dropped even more to just $0.38 per watt.

This price decrease happened because of technological improvements, policy changes, and changes in how the market works. Even though there was a slight price increase in 2018 due to tariffs on imported panels, the costs continued to go down after that.

Timeline of Solar Panel Costs:


The prices mentioned include the solar panels and the costs for installing things like inverters, mounting systems, and other necessary parts of a solar energy system.

Reports, like those from EnergySage, tell us that from 2012 to 2017, the average total cost of solar systems for homes went down by more than 70%. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) even noted a 5% drop in solar energy per watt price in 2018.

It’s clear that solar power is getting more affordable compared to traditional energy sources, and this trend is likely to continue as technology improves and more people adopt solar energy.

Applications of Solar Power

From residential use, to industrial, there are many applications for solar cells.

Solar energy has come a long way, changing from a new idea to a widely used and sustainable energy source. It’s used in various areas, like providing power for homes and the space industry for propelling spacecraft.

Spacecraft and Satellites

Modern solar panels are crucial for spacecraft and satellites, supplying the electricity needed for onboard electronics. Solar-powered spacecraft use photovoltaic technology to directly turn sunlight into electric current without emissions, which is important in the vacuum of space.

The International Space Station uses big solar arrays to power its systems, and numerous satellites depend entirely on solar energy to operate.

Residential and Industrial

At both residential and industrial levels, solar panels mitigate the energy crisis by providing a renewable means to generate electricity.

On an industrial scale, solar energy is used with solar farms and rooftop installations on factories and warehouses. These large arrays not only power operations but can also send extra electricity back to the grid.

1888 – First U.S. Patent for Solar Cells

In 1888, a significant moment happened in the history of solar energy tech. Inventor Edward Weston got two patents for his innovative work on solar cells, an essential step in the history of solar panels.

These patents, known as U.S. Patent 389,124, and U.S. Patent 389,425, laid out Weston’s creative designs and ideas for these early solar devices.

Key Features of Weston’s Patents:

  • Energy Conversion: The patents documented methods for converting solar radiation into electrical energy.

  • Thermopiles Use: He utilized thermopiles, devices that convert heat energy directly into electrical energy.

Weston’s research wasn’t about today’s solar cells but an earlier solar tech. His patents show the early interest in and steps taken in solar energy.

While those solar cells weren’t super efficient, these patents set the groundwork. Weston’s work influenced later inventors, shaping the path for future advancements in solar technology.

1905 – Einstein Introduces the Photoelectric Effect

Albert Einstein and the Photoelectric Effect
Einstein’s pioneering work on the photoelectric effect illuminated the path for solar technology.

In 1905, Albert Einstein explained the photoelectric effect, where light hitting materials releases electrons. He suggested light is both waves and particles called photons.

Here are the main points:

  • Nature of Light: Einstein suggested that light comprises particles (photons) with quantized energy.

  • Energy Transfer: Electrons are emitted when light with sufficient energy strikes a material.

  • Threshold Frequency: There is a minimum frequency of light below which no electrons are emitted, regardless of the light’s intensity.

Einstein’s theory was groundbreaking, challenging classical light theory and supporting quantum theory. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect, boosting early quantum mechanics.

The photoelectric effect’s applications were significant, leading to technologies like photocells that convert light into electricity.

As the Understanding the Mechanics of the Photoelectric Effect deepened, it laid the foundation for advancements in using light for power, ultimately contributing to the invention of solar photovoltaic cells.

Einstein’s theory played a crucial role in evolving solar energy systems by applying the principles of the photoelectric effect.

1939 – Solar 1, the First Solar House in America

In 1939, MIT achieved a milestone with Solar 1, the first solar-powered house in the U.S., pioneering residential solar heating.

Solar 1 used sunlight alone to produce electricity for warmth, showcasing MIT’s innovation in sustainable design.

The house design maximized solar heat gain through features like south-facing windows and high thermal mass materials.

1939Construction of Solar 1 by MIT
First house heated by solar energy in America

It served as an experimental site, influencing the development of home solar thermal technologies. Beyond functionality, Solar 1 demonstrated the potential of solar energy to reduce reliance on finite fossil fuels, shaping today’s sustainable architecture.

1954 – First High-Power Silicon Solar PV Cell Created

First High-Power Silicon Solar Photovoltaic Cell

In 1954, Bell Laboratories unveiled the first high-power silicon solar cell, a game-changer in solar technology. This breakthrough enhanced solar efficiency, making it commercially viable for various applications.

Before this, solar power was minimally efficient. However, the new silicon cell significantly improved electricity conversion, opening doors for widespread use.

Cost: Initially expensive, ongoing research reduced manufacturing costs, making solar energy more accessible.

Research and Development: Bell Labs’ success highlighted effective research for practical technology solutions.

Renewable Energy: This cell showcased solar’s potential for global energy needs, reducing carbon emissions.

Commercial Impact: It spurred efforts to integrate solar energy into the market.

The 1954 creation of the first high-power silicon solar cell marked the start of solar energy’s journey as a staple in the world’s energy mix.

1963 – Mass Production of Solar Panels

In 1963, Sharp made a breakthrough in solar technology, achieving mass production of solar panels. This marked a pivotal step forward in the photovoltaic industry, transitioning from experimental to industrial and commoditized production.

Key Milestones:

  • Initiation of Research: Sharp initiated solar cell research as early as 1959.

  • Mass Production Achieved: By 1963, Sharp successfully transitioned to mass production.

Before this breakthrough, solar cell applications were limited to niche markets like space technology. Sharp’s innovation significantly lowered the cost of solar cells, making them more accessible and practical for a broader range of applications.

Mass Production Impact:

  • Cost Reduction: Economies of scale helped in lowering the cost per unit.

  • Market Expansion: New applications in consumer electronics and beyond were explored.

These advancements by Sharp and other companies laid the foundation for solar power to become a more viable alternative to fossil fuels.

This shift, coinciding with increasing environmental awareness and the pursuit of sustainable energy sources, marked solar power’s transition from a laboratory curiosity to a commercially helpful product with real-world applications.

1964 – NASA launches first solar PV array

In 1964, Nasa sent the Nimbus I satellite into space with solar attached.

In 1964, NASA took a big step in solar technology by sending the Nimbus I satellite into space. This was an important moment in using solar power to generate electricity for space missions, as the satellite had a unique solar panel that could track the sun.

Key Facts:

  • Satellite: Nimbus I

  • Launch Date: August 28, 1964

  • Unique Feature: Solar panels that tracked the sun

The Nimbus I satellite, designed for weather research, made strides in using solar power for critical functions. Unlike its predecessor, Vanguard I, which had fixed solar cells, Nimbus I featured an advanced solar array that powered the satellite’s systems throughout its mission, proving the reliability of solar energy in space applications.

Nimbus I’s Innovations:

  • Solar Panel Movement: Sun-tracking capability

  • Purpose: Powered the satellite’s instruments and transmitters

  • Impact: Demonstrated reliability of PV arrays in space

NASA’s use of modern solar panels on Nimbus I was crucial in showing that solar PV arrays are practical and reliable in space.

These early efforts set the stage for future satellites and even crewed space missions, highlighting solar as a key energy source.

This successful application sparked increased interest and investment in solar power, advancing its development for both space and Earth-based applications.

1973 – The first solar-powered building is erected

In 1973, as interest in renewable energy surged, the first solar-heated building, Solar One, was constructed. This marked a key moment in solar history, moving from research to practical applications.

Solar One stood as a symbol of clean energy potential during the oil embargo, addressing the pressing need for alternative energy sources amid an energy crisis.

Features of Solar One:

  • Utilized an active solar heating system.

  • Featured solar collectors on the roof that absorbed sunlight and converted it into heat.

  • Contained a system that stored this heat in rocks below the building.


  • Reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

  • Pioneered solar technology use in a commercial structure.

  • Encouraged further research and development in solar technologies.

Economic Impact:

  • Solar power was still an expensive technology at the time.

  • Cost of solar was offset by the potential for long-term energy savings.

  • Served as proof of concept that would eventually lead to more affordable solar solutions in the following decades.

Solar One’s construction marked a turning point for renewables, showcasing solar as a practical part of the global energy mix.

Its success revealed that buildings could be functional and eco-friendly, influencing future designs and boosting the broader acceptance of solar as a legitimate and clean energy source.

1999 – Germany’s 100,000 Solar Roofs program

Germany launched an ambitious renewable project called the 100,000 Solar Roofs program in 1999.

In 1999, Germany launched an ambitious renewable project called the 100,000 Solar Roofs program. The aim was to promote the widespread use of traditional solar panels and photovoltaic (PV) systems nationwide, enhancing the renewable energy sector.

Building on the success of the earlier 1,000 Roofs Program, this initiative signified a significant step forward in Germany’s dedication to green energy.

Key Attributes of the Program:

  • Start Date: 1999

  • Status: Concluded

  • Objective: Expansion of solar PV installations

  • Target: Over 100,000 rooftop PV systems

The program provided significant financial incentives to encourage the installation of solar panels. Homeowners and small businesses were offered low-interest loans, with interest rates approximately 4.5% below the regular market conditions at the time.

Financial Incentives Detail:

  • Loan Interest Rate: 4.5% below market rate

  • Repayment Period: 10 years

  • Deferred Payments: 2 years

Germany aimed to achieve several goals by making solar more accessible: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, supporting technological innovation, creating jobs, and transitioning towards a more sustainable energy future.

This incentive scheme was pivotal in Germany’s Energiewende, a comprehensive policy movement towards renewables and away from fossil fuels.

The 100,000 Roofs Solar Power Programme positioned Germany as a leader in solar energy, demonstrating that government-backed initiatives can significantly accelerate the transition to clean energy.

2008 – 2012: Cost of PV Modules Falls

Between 2008 and 2012, the solar industry experienced a remarkable 97 percent decrease in photovoltaic (PV) module costs. This substantial drop reflects the sector’s impressive technological and manufacturing advancements during that period. Multiple factors contributed to this significant reduction and warrant closer examination.

Firstly, the substantial increase in manufacturing scale played a significant role in cost reduction. With the growing demand for renewable energy sources, manufacturers capitalized on economies of scale, effectively lowering the per-unit cost of PV modules.

Secondly, advancements in technology were crucial. During these years, improvements in solar cell efficiency allowed modules to generate more power without a corresponding increase in cost, effectively reducing the cost per watt of solar-generated electricity.

Lastly, competitive market dynamics also exerted downward pressure on prices. With many companies entering the solar market, competition became fierce, accelerating innovations and cost-reduction strategies.

Here are important points explaining the decrease in cost:

  • Scale of manufacturing leads to reduced costs through economies of scale.

  • Technological advancements in silicon solar cells efficiency and improved power output.

  • Market competition spurs innovation and cost competitiveness.

These combined efforts and market drivers ensured that by the end of 2012, solar panels became considerably more affordable to both the public and private sectors, fostering widespread adoption and integration of solar as a key component of the global renewable energy portfolio.

A detailed study during this timeframe provides further insights into the contributing factors of this cost reduction.

2024 – The Best Time to Install Solar Panels

Installing Solar Panels from Now until 2032 Makes Good Financial Sense

2024 has become a favorable time for homeowners contemplating solar adoption, thanks to the extended 30% federal solar tax credit until 2032. This incentive significantly reduces the financial barrier, enabling a 30% deduction of the installation cost from one’s federal taxes.

  • Affordability: Solar panel costs have decreased significantly, with prices dropping by as much as 70% since 2014.

  • Tax Credit: Homeowners are eligible for a tax credit that accounts for 30% of the solar installation cost.

  • Return on Investment: With the federal tax credit, the average payback period is around 8.7 years.

The tax credit isn’t just a discount; it’s a deduction from total owed taxes. For instance, a $20,000 solar panel system qualifies for a $6,000 tax credit, reducing the system’s cost to $14,000.

Beyond federal incentives, numerous states offer programs to encourage solar adoption, making 2024 an even more appealing year for investing in solar tech.

Homeowners should evaluate their electricity bills, solar potential, and available incentives to maximize savings and support a greener energy future.

The Future of Solar – Perovskite Minerals (2026)

In 2026, perovskite solar cells mark a major leap in solar tech. Using a material called the perovskite structure, these cells are highly efficient compared to traditional silicon-based ones.

Notably, perovskite cells bring advantages in terms of cost-effectiveness and manufacturability, potentially reshaping the solar industry.

Efficiency and Production

Perovskites have caught attention for rapidly increasing power conversion efficiency (PCE), aiming to outperform traditional silicon solar cells.

Their impressive efficiency trajectory shows promise in standalone use and in tandem with silicon cells. Perovskite layers enhance efficiency in tandem setups by absorbing light spectra that silicon can’t.

The Flexibility Advantage

Beyond efficiency, the appeal of perovskite technology in 2026 lies in its flexibility. Unlike bulkier silicon panels, perovskite solar cells can be lightweight and semi-transparent, allowing integration into various structures, such as windows or unconventional architectures.

Challenges and Durability

Perovskites face challenges related to long-term stability, prompting efforts to enhance their lifespan for extended deployment.

Material science advancements and protective coatings are being explored as solutions. Despite these challenges, perovskites hold a significant role in the future of solar energy.

Research efforts aim to overcome hurdles, making them a potential game-changer for both residential and commercial applications and a bright spot in the evolution of green energy solutions.

What’s Next for Solar Panels?

And there you have it—a journey through the brief history of solar panels. Solar has continued to evolve since Edmond Becquerel’s 1839 discovery to today’s widespread use and affordability.

As we continue into 2024, the 30% federal solar tax credit incentivizes homeowners to consider embracing solar energy. Meanwhile, the prospect of perovskite solar cells in 2026 brings exciting possibilities with their efficiency and flexibility.

Milestones like solar-heated buildings and PV-powered satellites have propelled us toward a cleaner, more sustainable future.

As we conclude this chapter, we can’t help but wonder: What’s the next big idea that will drive solar energy forward? The journey continues, and the possibilities are endless.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who Invented Solar Panels?

Solar panels, as a technology, don’t have a single inventor. The development of solar panels has involved contributions from multiple scientists and researchers over the years.

The key milestones include:

Edmond Becquerel (1839): Discovered the photovoltaic effect, laying the foundation for solar cell technology.

Bell Laboratories (1954): Created the first high-power silicon solar cell, making solar energy more practical for various applications.

Sharp Corporation (1963): Achieved mass production of solar panels, significantly reducing their cost and increasing accessibility.

These are just a few key moments in the history of solar panels, and the technology has evolved through collaborative efforts over time.

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