Looking To The Sun: A Brief History of Solar Power

by | Jun 10, 2021 | Blog

A burning glass that people used to concentrate the sun's rays onto a small area and cause ignition.


  • Solar energy has played a huge role in our history and is now being used to help us generate a renewable source of power. Through renewable energy, we are able to move away from fossil fuels, which produce harmful pollutants.
  • Solar energy systems are being installed worldwide and are becoming increasingly popular for generating electricity, heating, and water distillation. Currently, solar power is generated through two main methods: photovoltaics (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP).
  • It is believed that solar energy has been used since the 7th century BC -when humans used magnifying materials to manipulate sunlight to start fires. Some ancient notions, such as sunrooms, are still used today. These installations make use of the sun’s heat and create warm spaces to enjoy.
  • There have been many scientists who have contributed to the development of solar panel technology. Due to this, there is a bit of contention over when solar panels were created and who should be attributed for their invention.
  • As interesting as the history of solar power is, it is also an exciting time to be a part of its future. The reduction in costs has opened new doors for renewable energy investments and has made getting involved in solar power much more accessible.


The sun is a massive part of our history. After all, the energy contained in sunlight is the source of life on Earth. We can now harness the sun’s energy to generate power to fuel our daily activities without the need to produce harmful pollutants. There are many ways we can convert solar energy into readily available forms of energy, such as electricity or heat.

While solar energy now plays a dynamic and established role in today’s renewable energy industry, there is an extensive history behind photovoltaics (PV) that has brought the concept of solar energy to the place it is today. Due to how the price of solar has plummeted in the past ten years, it can be easy to overlook the fact that ‘going solar’ had an entirely different meaning just a decade ago.

This article will go back a few centuries to explore the science behind solar energy and explore its history. But before we dive into solar energy’s past, let’s touch on what solar energy is and the basics of how we harness the sun’s power.

The Basics of Solar Power

It is possible to accumulate energy from the sun, even on a cloudy day.

As most of us know, solar power is energy generated by the sun and radiated through space, primarily as visible and near-infrared light. It is possible to accumulate energy from the sun, even on a cloudy day. When sunlight strikes the planet’s surface, thermal energy (otherwise known as heat) is created. This thermal energy is responsible for many of our global phenomena, such as wind patterns, water cycle, and ocean currents. One of the sun’s other natural wonders is photosynthesis. This is the process by which plants produce their own food by converting sunlight into chemical energy.
Solar energy systems are being installed worldwide and are becoming increasingly popular for generating electricity, heating, and water distillation. As you may know, solar power is generated through two main methods:

  • Photovoltaics (PV) – Also known as solar cells, PV cells are electronic devices that convert sunlight directly into electricity. The modern solar cell is something most people will recognise, regardless of the country or environment where you are situated. Solar cells are contained in the panels that are installed on our houses, street lamps, and even in calculators. PV is one of the world’s fastest-growing renewable energy technologies and is gearing up to play a significant part in the future global electricity generation.
    Solar PV installations can generate enough electricity for large-scale purposes or be fitted into smaller configurations for personal use or mini-grids. Mini-grids are an excellent way to provide electricity access to people who live in isolated areas or off the grid. They are especially useful in developing countries with excellent solar energy prospects.
  • Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) – This system uses mirrors to concentrate solar rays. The rays heat a fluid which then generates steam to drive a turbine, which produces electricity. CSP is generally used in large-scale power plants.
    Power plants for CSP tend to feature a large field of mirrors that redirect rays to a tall thin tower. When compared to a solar PV power plant, the main benefit of a CSP power plant is that it can be fitted out with molten salts, which can store heat. This means electricity can continue to be generated after the sun has set.

Now that we understand the fundamentals of what solar power is and how we generate it from the sun, let’s move onto the history of how we have arrived upon these incredible innovations. Solar energy has always been part of human existence in some shape or form, so let’s see how sunshine has developed into a crucial source of modern renewable energy.

When Was Solar Energy First Used?

Solar energy has been used as early as the 7th century BC – when we made use of magnifying materials to manipulate sunlight for combustion.

If you want to be precise, you could say that ancient bacteria first discovered solar energy. Around 2.3 billion years ago, it was thought that the first-ever microbe developed the capability for photosynthesis, which, as you know, is caused by the sun. Ironically, this photosynthesis also led to a devastating environmental catastrophe known as the Great Oxygenation Event. It was caused by the emission of oxygen gas as a byproduct of photosynthesis. While these first solar-powered organisms inadvertently triggered a mass extinction, solar power today could hold the key to preventing a planetary crisis: global warming. Fascinating, isn’t it?

As for human history, solar energy has been used as early as the 7th century BC – when we made use of magnifying materials to manipulate sunlight for combustion. Leaping on to the 3rd century BC, the Greeks and Romans used solar power by way of mirrors to light torches for religious ceremonies. Once they found how helpful the sun was for lighting fires, these mirrors became a standard household tool, known as “burning mirrors”. In 20 AD, Chinese civilisation also documented the use of mirrors for the same purpose.

Another early known use of solar energy, which is still popular today, was the notion of “sunrooms”. These sunrooms were installed in buildings by using enormous windows to direct sunlight into a single concentrated area. It is understood that some of the iconic Roman bathhouses, usually located on the south-facing side of buildings, were sunrooms. Later in 1200 AD, ancestors to the Pueblo Native Americans (known as the Anasazi) situated themselves in south-facing cliff dwellings to catch the sun’s warmth during the cold winter season.

Skipping onto the late 1700s and 1800s, researchers and scientists found some success in using sunlight to power ovens for long voyages. They also managed to exploit the power of the sun to generate solar-powered steamboats. At the end of the day, it is evident that centuries before the modern solar panel era, the concept of using the power of the sun has been common practice throughout human history.

The Invention of Solar Panels

There has been a lot of debate over when solar panels were created and who should be attributed for their invention.

Many scientists have contributed to the development of solar panel technology, and it continues to be a group effort. There has been a lot of debate over when solar panels were created and who should be attributed for their invention. Some feel credit for the solar cell invention should go to the French scientist Edmond Becquerel. He determined that light could increase electricity generation when two metal electrodes were placed into a conducting solution. Edmond Becquerel’s breakthrough, known as the “photovoltaic effect”, hugely influenced PV advancements using selenium (a metalloid element).

In 1873, Willoughby Smith then discovered that selenium had photoconductive potential. This led to Richard Evans Day’s and William Grylls Adams’ discovery in 1876 that selenium creates electricity when exposed to sunlight. Charles Fritts then used this research to produce the first solar cells made from selenium wafers in 1883. For these reasons, some historians credit Charles Fritts for having invented solar cells.

The solar cells we know today are not made with selenium, but rather with silicon. Therefore, some argue the invention of solar panels should be linked to Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson. In 1954, this team of scientists created silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells at Bell Labs. There is popular contention that the event at Bell Labs marks the true invention of PV technology. It was the first time solar technology was used to power an electric device for an extended period. So, the question of who invented solar panels often comes down to personal opinion.

Notable Events In The History of Solar Energy

Satellite above Earth which is powered by solar technology.

When President Barack Obama took office, he asked for solar panels and a solar water heater to be installed at the White House.

As interesting as the history of photovoltaic technology is, some notable events have taken place that we should not take for granted. Here are our top five iconic moments:

  • Solar panels in outer space – You may be surprised to learn that some of the earliest solar technology appeared in outer space. Even as you read this article, solar energy is being used to power satellites. It was in the late 1950s that solar technology made its way up into orbit. Initially, a satellite called Vanguard I used a tiny one-watt panel to power its radios in 1958. Later the same year, the Vanguard II, Explorer III and Sputnik-3 were all launched with PV technology on board. In 1964, NASA launched a satellite, the first Nimbus spacecraft, which could run entirely on a 470-watt solar array. Two years later, in 1966, NASA then launched the world’s first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory powered by an impressive one-kilowatt array.
  • First solar building – The University of Delaware is credited with constructing the first solar building in 1973. This building was named “Solar One” and ran on a hybrid system of solar PV and solar thermal power. It was also the first time that building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) were used, as engineers incorporated solar technology into the rooftop.
  • Solar conversion efficiency – Hoffman Electronics made several breakthroughs with photovoltaic efficiency between 1957 and 1960. First, they managed to improve the efficiency record from 8% to 14%. It was then not until 1985 that the next significant achievement was made. At this point, a 20% efficiency for silicon cells was accomplished at the University of South Wales. Efficiency then further improved in 1999 when the National Renewable Energy Laboratory worked with SpectroLab Inc. to create a solar cell with 33.3% effectiveness. The record was then broken again by the University of South Wales when researchers reached 34.5% efficiency in 2016.
  • Solar-powered planes – Paul MacCready built the trail-blazing Solar Challenger in 1981 and flew it across the English Channel from France to Britain. There was then a remote-controlled solar plane called “Pathfinder”, which was built in 1998. It set an altitude record after reaching 80,000 feet. The record was then broken by NASA again in 2001 when they reached 96,000 feet with a non-rocket aircraft. Finally, Bertrand Piccard built the world’s largest and most powerful solar-powered plane called Solar Impulse 2. In 2016, Solar Impulse 2 completed the first zero-emissions flight worldwide.
  • Solar-Powered White House – In 1979, President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed at the White House. Unfortunately, President Ronald Reagan then ordered the White House solar panels to be removed in 1981. When President Barack Obama took office, he asked for solar panels and a solar water heater to be installed at the White House. These projects were both completed during his first term.

How To Become A Part Of Solar Power’s Future

Investing in a community solar farm is an excellent option if you rent your home, as it does not involve installing solar panels onto your roof.

It is an exciting time to be a part of renewable energy. Innovations in solar technology, design and manufacturing processes are all helping to reduce costs and improve performance for green energy. These developments have also led to a surge in renewable energy investment interests – which makes getting involved in clean power much easier for you as a renter or homeowner. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Switch your electricity provider to one that is powered by renewables – This is probably one of the simplest ways to get involved in renewable energy. Contact your current electricity provider and ask if they offer plans that are powered by renewables. There are many plans out there, but the most common type is one that is made up of a percentage of renewable sources. When you sign-up for a green energy plan, you may not actually be receiving electricity directly from solar or other renewable sources. Still, you are paying for your utility provider to buy a certain amount of clean power each month based on your energy usage. By simply switching your rate plan to a greener option, you are reducing your carbon footprint and contributing to new green power jobs.
  • Participate in a small community solar farm – A community-led way to get involved in solar energy is to participate in a local solar farm. Investing in a community solar farm is an excellent option if you rent your home, as it does not involve installing solar panels onto your roof. Instead, you receive a portion of the energy which is generated by the local community solar farm. Unlike a green power plan from your utility company (where you tend to pay more to support renewable energy), a local community solar array aims to save participants money. However, the main attraction is the positive environmental impact.
  • Install rooftop home solar panels – If you want to experience solar energy benefits directly, you can install panels on your home. There are many economic and environmental benefits to rooftop solar panels, but it’s best to do your research before investing. Watch out for misinformation, as there are many variables to consider. For instance, not all homes are suited to rooftop solar panels. In some cases, the roof size could be too small, or there could be too much shade on your property. If you are already on a low monthly energy tariff, you may not have much return on your investment. Depending on your location, you should also consider whether you are allowed to sell any surplus power back to the grid, as this can be another great way to make some money back from your investment.

Closing Thoughts

As you now know, the history of solar power goes back to the beginning of life itself. The future is looking positive as we move away from destructive energy sources and make a massive global push for clean, renewable power. Canada is another nation making strides in solar energy. The Canada Energy Regulator (formerly known as the National Energy Board) expects solar power to make up 3% of Canada’s total >electricity generation capacity by 2040.

At this point, you may realise that you have inadvertently been a part of solar power’s history. Why not consider getting actively involved in solar energy’s future? You can do this by buying solar stocks or participating in the solar energy movement through some other means, such as community solar co-ops. There are many ways you can make solar energy shine in your portfolio.


Who created the first solar panel?

During the late 19th century, a Russian physicist called Aleksandr Stoletov developed the first-ever solar cell based on the photoelectric effect. However, the solar industry didn’t begin to grow until Bell Labs pioneered significant advancements in silicon-based solar cells in the 1950s.


How was solar energy used in the past?

It is believed that one of the earliest uses of solar power involved focusing the sun’s energy through a magnifying glass to start a fire for cooking. By the 3rd century BC, the Romans and Greeks were thought to have bounced sunlight off “burning mirrors” to ignite torches for sacred ceremonies.


Who founded solar energy?

The first solar cell, a device that converts light directly into electricity using the photoelectric effect, was constructed by Charles Fritts in the 1880s. In 1931, Dr Bruno Lange (a German engineer) developed the first photocell using silver selenide in place of copper oxide.


When was the first solar panelled building established?

In 1973, The University of Delaware was accredited with creating one of the first solar-powered buildings called “Solar One”. The construction ran on a combination of solar photovoltaic and solar thermal power. Unlike modern renewable solar homes, the university building didn’t use solar panels. Instead, there was a solar system integrated into the rooftop.


What made solar power commercially viable?

It was in the 1970s that developments occurred in solar energy that made solar panels more accessible. Dr Elliot Berman and Exxon managed to design a less expensive solar cell that reduced the cost per watt from $100 to $20. Now that solar technology is becoming more affordable, solar cells and panels could find their way into industries and homes alike.