While solar energy has been around since the early 1800s, it's only existed in its modern form for the past 75 years. Most advances have happened since the 1970s, and it's only been the 10 to 15 years that have seen solar energy available to the masses.
In today's world, you've likely driven past a home with solar panels somewhere nearby. Your child may attend a school with solar panels on the roof, or your electric utilities may be partially powered by solar. Whatever experience you've had with solar, it is unlikely that it hasn't touched your life in some way.
These developments are exciting for the industry but can also have a direct impact on individual users, like you. There have been tax laws written that have continued the push forward with solar energy technology. It can now be found throughout many aspects of our lives, and despite some challenging times, solar energy is now a large employer in the US, as well.
While it's easy to think of solar as a new technology, it has actually been used since the 7th century, B.C. Back then solar energy was used to light fires by focusing a beam of light. This is the same technology employed by modern children with magnifying glasses during the summer months.
The technology of solar energy really didn’t evolve much more until the 1800’s when the first solar cells were invented. This was made possible by the work of Willoughby Smith. He found an element that could conduct light as energy. It was this discovery that became the foundation of solar cells that now make up solar panels.
Space Leads Innovation
As early as the 1950s, solar panels have been used on satellites and to support space missions. The solar energy in space was easy to collect and provided continuous power to keep things running. Vanguard 1 was the most notable satellite to use a solar panel to collect energy from the sun. It was during this decade that selenium was traded for the much more effective silicon that we still use today.
It was just shortly after this that 10% efficiency was achieved with a solar cell. While this was a big step forward, solar energy was still too expensive to popular on the mass market. It would be 1982 before the first station to use solar power is built. Though, as oil prices dropped during this time, little additional growth or development was seen.
Research and Development Rewards
It wasn’t until the start of the 21st century that modern solar energy research and development really took off. California’s energy market experiences greater demand than it could supply, and politicians were looking for better ways to provide power. At the federal level, the government wrote into law tax credits and several other incentives to encourage utilities to invest in renewable energy.
This generated further interest in solar energy right in the center of Silicon Valley, where technology advances were already at the heart of their economy. The same silicon that was used in computer chips was now also being put to work on solar panels. The crossover allowed research and development to happen more quickly.
The local understanding of silicon combined with a culture that already expected and rewarded new thinking and startup ideas. This environment allowed the research and development of solar energy to thrive by providing easy access to investors and a ready supply of both silicon and experts as developing new technology.
Unfortunately, the increased need for silicon led to a shortage that drove prices to record highs. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, this actually attracted investors. Where consumers saw high prices, investors saw the opportunity for high profits. All that they had to do was bring down the cost of making solar panels.
Combine their interest in potentially high profits with the climate change conversations that also became a common occurrence during the 2000s, and Silicon Valley saw the start-up of quite a few solar technology companies. They were all intensely focused on finding a cheaper way to make solar energy technology.
During this time of intense development and innovation, the US government through a great deal of support behind the projects, as well. Tax codes continued to support the solar energy industry and incentives were offered to support the on-going hiring and development of new human talent.
There were even grants made available to support the research being done. In some cases, those grants were able to be used to build factories and plants to build the solar panels, as well. It was during this time that we saw the number of jobs in the solar energy industry skyrocket.
Many of the new startup solar companies focused their research on developing thinner solar cells to go into the solar panels. This design did not use silicon but was made of thinner elements that were cheaper and more lightweight than silicon. It made sense, at the time.
While these thinner solar cells were not as durable as silicon, they were cheaper.
Computer chips competed with the solar industry for the available silicon, which drove those prices higher. When researchers found ways to avoid using silicon, they were able to avoid those high prices. This was the key to gaining the higher profits their investors dreamed of.
All of this intense research and development created new levels of achievement in energy output, too. In 2006, solar cells were developed that could achieve 40% efficiency. Not only was this the highest ever achieved, it meant that few cells and panels were needed to produce the same amount of electricity. This was a game-changer for the solar energy industry. Until two other things changed at once.
Hit by the Recession
Just as several companies were gearing up to produce these new, thin-celled solar panels, the calendar flipped to 2008, and the country was hit with the recession. At the same time, the silicon industry had been ramping up for several years in an attempt to meet the demands of both solar and computer chip production.
Suddenly, there was plenty of silicon available and the funds needed to manufacture thinner-celled panels disappeared. Many of the startups that had looked so promising ended up going under. Some declared bankruptcy while others sold for almost nothing. Production of the sturdier, silicon solar cells for solar panels took off.
Too Much Supply
The market was flooded with more solar panels than our recession-focused economy knew what to do with. This drove the price of those panels down to levels that made them accessible to many ordinary Americans.
As the US slowly moved out of the recession, this excess of solar panels at affordable prices allowed small electric co-ops to create solar fields. This availability made solar panels on campers and outside homes more common than we had ever seen before. Solar energy is now a part of our everyday lives.
Regulations That Came Too Late
A lasting impact of the course of events can still be seen in the source of US solar panels today. By 2016, solar cells were being sold for as little as $0.26 per watt. China had also been manufacturing solar cells and using them to build solar panels. This added even more solar energy to the market.
Because so many solar panels ended up selling for such reduced prices, many large US companies, like General Electric, left the industry. This left an opening for foreign companies. Today, many of our solar panels are imported from China despite attempts that have been made to regulate trade in a way that discourages importing solar panels.
In recent years, solar energy has evolved into an affordable option to meet many of our energy needs. Many electric co-ops have begun adding solar fields as part of their energy supply, and some utility companies will even purchase excess solar power from homeowners. Those homeowners typically have solar panels installed on their property or even their roofs, but they remain connected to the power company's grid. They avoid the need to store energy by feeding it back to the utility company in exchange for a reduction in their electric fees.
Other users may have just one or two solar panels that connect to their camper or vehicle to provide them with power while they travel. The newest of these panels are lightweight, affordable, portable, and easy to install. This makes them a great choice for those who want to get off the beaten trail without giving up access to electricity. Just be sure to park in a clearing where the sun will shine.
Whatever your interest in solar energy, it is likely here to stay. There are new technologies and new uses found for solar energy every day. Just keep your eyes open and you’ll likely see the glimmer of the future in solar panels all around the country.