A brief History of Solar Power

The year is 1839 and Alexandre Edmond Becquerellar, a young man of only 19 years of age, using his fathers’ lab, set into motion what is now often called a “Solar Revolution”. ("Though, “Solar Evolution” is probably a better description.)

Edmond Becquerel discovered solar power

By placing silver chloride into an acidic solution and then illuminating it while connected to platinum electrodes, the result was the first primitive solar cell generating voltage and current. Certainly not enough to power - well – anything. (not to mention in 1839 there wasn’t a whole lot to power with electricity. But the march to the modern Solar panel had taken it’s first baby steps.  

By 1884 another Solar pioneer, Charles Fritts, installed the world's first rooftop photovoltaic solar array, using 1% efficient selenium cells, on a New York City roof. Now that’s what you call an “early adopter”!

It took 107 years after that initial experiment before Russell Ohl made the next major steps toward the solar cell as we know it today. The torch was then carried forward by D.M. Chapin, C.S. Fuller and G.L. Pearson, of Bell Laboratories in 1954. They are credited with creating the silicon solar cell. At that time, it is reported that the cost was an eye watering $1,785 per watt.

Who could afford that kind of bill? Well government of course! NASA adopted the Solar cells to use on Vanguard 1, the first satellite powered by solar. Launched in 1958, it had only been a mere four years since the first commercially viable solar cell was introduced.

Vanguard 1 satellite used the first commercial solar panels

The technology remained a “niche market” to say the least. Then the 1973 oil embargo and the 1979 energy crisis brought focus to the industry and concerted efforts and research money flowed into improving the technology and drove the price down to $30 a watt (cell cost at the manufacturing level). Still a steep price for an individual home to pay for solar power.

The early 1980’s saw the first Solar power plant open in California. The Arco Solar plant generated 1 megawatt (1,000 kilowatts) of power per hour when operating at full capacity.

The 1990’s saw development of the technology gain momentum and acceptance by the general public accelerate. Solar was now affordable enough that residential homes were installing what was once the domain of NASA satellites onto suburban homes.

Step by step, discovery by discovery, improvement by improvement, Solar power has been earning its stripes and finding it’s way into our Homes and offices, the products we use like radios and calculators, cattle watering stations and recreational vehicles. The price per watt has come down so much it often beats more conventional power sources. As of this writing, Solar is about $0.37 per watt (cell cost at the manufacturing level). This is why a brief scan of most cities will reveal solar everywhere. From road signs and rooftops to factories and schools.

The little energy source that had been written off so many times as being too inefficient and too expensive to be useful or affordable just keeps moving forward through the good times and bad.

Let’s give the final words to the great American inventor Thomas Edison:

“I’d put my money on the Sun and Solar Energy. What a source of power!”


Moment of Reflection on just how monumental the price decrease has been! (grid tie systems)

1979 – price of just the cell, $30/W.   Complete system price, who knows.

1998 – cell price, $3.80/W.    System Price, $11/W

2005 – cell price, $3.90/W.    System Price, $9/W

2010 – cell price, $1.98/W     System Price, $7.50/W Residential l $5.80/W Commercial

2014 – cell price, $0.67/W      System Price, $4.10/W Residential l $2.80/W Commercial

2018 – Sunfind Solar’s actual installed pricing for grid tie system.

·         Residential:           $2.55/W

·         Commercial:         $1.86/W