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History of Solar Power: Who Invented Solar Panels?

The Evolution of Solar Panels: Refining Light into Power

The journey of solar panels from a scientific curiosity to a cornerstone of renewable energy illustrates not just technological progress, but the persistent human endeavour to harness the sun's boundless energy - but who invented solar panels? This story is rooted in the 19th century, with pivotal discoveries and innovations propelling the technology forward, transforming it into the solar power solutions we rely on today.

The Foundations in the 19th Century

The saga began in 1839 with French physicist Edmond Becquerel's discovery of the photovoltaic effect, noticing that some materials generated an electrical charge when exposed to light. Although these early prototypes were inefficient for powering electrical devices, they served an important role as instruments for measuring light intensity. The significance of Becquerel's discovery was profound, yet it took several decades before the phenomenon was further explored.

It wasn't until 1873 that English electrical engineer Willoughby Smith observed the effect of light on selenium, a breakthrough that reignited interest in photovoltaic technology. Following Smith's findings, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day published "The action of light on selenium" in 1876, elaborating on experiments that replicated Smith's results, marking a crucial step in understanding and harnessing the photovoltaic effect.

In 1881, American inventor Charles Fritts took the concept further by creating the first commercial solar panel, described by Fritts as capable of generating "continuous, constant and of considerable force" electricity from both sunlight and dim, diffused daylight. Despite this advance, these solar panels were significantly less efficient than the coal-fired power plants of the era, limiting their practicality.

a man in front of a solar panel
Who Invented Solar Panels?

Mid-20th Century Breakthroughs

The transformation of solar technology continued with Russell Ohl's creation of a solar cell design in 1939 that underpins many modern solar panels. Ohl patented his invention in 1941, setting the stage for the next leap forward. In 1954, Bell Labs utilised Ohl's design to develop the first commercially viable silicon solar cell, a landmark achievement that brought solar power into the realm of practical energy solutions.

Growth and Challenges in the 21st Century

Between 2008 and 2013, the solar panel industry experienced significant growth, leading to a surge in installations. This expansion came with its own set of challenges, as installers frequently encountered less-than-ideal conditions for solar deployment, such as shaded roofs and problematic orientations. The industry responded with innovative solutions, including the re-popularisation of micro-inverters and the invention of power optimisers, addressing these challenges head-on.

Manufacturers and companies collaborated to enhance solar panel functionality and efficiency. AC modules emerged from partnerships between solar panel manufacturers and micro-inverter companies, while smart modules were developed through collaborations with power optimiser firms. By 2013, the market saw the introduction and shipment of smart module solutions, marking a new era of sophisticated solar energy technology.

The Continuing Evolution: Who Invented Solar Panels?

The history of solar panels is a narrative of continual improvement and adaptation. From the earliest observations by Becquerel to the advanced smart modules of the 21st century, each development has built upon the last, driving us towards a more sustainable and efficient energy future. As we move forward, the evolution of solar technology remains a testament to human ingenuity and our enduring quest to leverage the sun's power for a cleaner, more sustainable world.

The Future Of Solar Panels

The future of solar panels is marked by promising advancements aimed at enhancing efficiency, reducing costs, and expanding accessibility. Breakthroughs in materials like perovskite and manufacturing techniques promise to push solar panel efficiencies beyond current limits while lowering production costs. Integration into various surfaces, such as building facades and portable devices, alongside smart solar systems utilising artificial intelligence, will optimize energy production and use. Innovations in energy storage, such as solid-state and flow batteries, will address the intermittency of solar power, ensuring a more reliable energy supply. Together with supportive policies and global initiatives for climate change mitigation, these advancements will significantly accelerate the adoption of solar technology, highlighting a future where solar energy plays a pivotal role in achieving a sustainable, renewable energy-driven world.


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