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Solar Energy History

The History of Solar Energy

A History over two thousand years old, solar energy has been a part of human life for a long time. Man has used solar power in its passive form to dry food and clothing and to warm homes for most of our history. The sun is the most potent and plentiful form of physical energy in our immediate existence. Of all the forces in the Universe the star is by far the most captivating and powerful. Our own star the “Sun” may be small by Universal standards but it is a giant star by our standards. So large that it accounts for over 99% of our solar systems mass and it’s power can be felt far past our own Earth orbit.

In just 40 minutes the amount of solar energy the sun emits that strikes the earth has the potential to power every electric outlet on the planet… for a year! Understanding the facts about our sun is a great way to understand solar energy. And understanding the history of solar energy development is a good place to begin. I hope you find the following informative and entertaining!

Humans learned how to harness solar energy in more sophisticated ways around 700 BC. Here’s the Solar Energy History timeline.

7th Century B.C.

Around 700 B.C. it was learned that a beam of sunshine targeted through a piece of glass could create enough heat energy to start a fire if the ray were focused onto something flammable.

3rd Century B.C.

By third century B.C., the Greeks and Romans were reflecting the sun’s rays from mirrors to ignite ceremony torches.

2nd Century B.C.

In the 2nd century BC, Archimedes, using copper shields, reflected a beam of sun onto an enemy wooden warship in the harbor and set it ablaze. Whether the story is true or false it has since been proved that it can indeed be done with the materials of that era.

For the next 1000 years man was contented to employ the power of the sun for the intentions of starting fires, passively heating abodes and drying out food and hides.

Over these early years in Solar Energy History, cultures learned to orient their dwellings and communities to face the sun (south) and exact fullest advantage of it’s heating energy. The low hanging sun would warm up the adobe brick or stone face of the building in winter and radiate it’s heat into the domicile well into the evening.

1st to 4th Century A.D.

1st to 4th Century Romans used passive solar to heat bathhouses. Glass windows facing the south allowed the sun’s rays to penetrate and warm the bathhouse, and then prevented it from escaping.

6th Century A.D.

Passive solar heating was becoming better understood and for the next several hundred years sun-rooms appeared on the south side of many Roman homes. The heat collected in the glass sun-room was allowed in to warm the home when the doors between the sun-room and home were opened.

1050 to 1300 A.D.

Around 1050 AD to 1300 is the period of the Anasazi cliff dwellings. Built in South facing cliffs with natural stone overhangs these communities were warmed in winter by the low hanging sun but the stone overhang provided much needed shade on hot summer days.

1700′s

1767 saw the first major solar discovery since the beginnings of solar energy harnessing.

Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure, in the mid 1700′s, fashioned the world’s first solar cooker.

Using a wooden box with a black cork bottom and placing three separate sheets of glass over it and finally insulating it, he was able to maintain an internal temperature of 230 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot enough to boil water and cook a meal!

Solar cookers of today closely resemble Saussure’s invention.

1800′s

By the 1800′s, discoveries were being made much faster. By the latter part of the century as little as three years would pass between discoveries.

Edmond Becquerel a French Scientist discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839. He was the first to discover that light intensified the amount of electricity generated between two electrodes. His findings were considered interesting, but were not pursued.

From 1860′s to 1880′s

the first solar powered engines were produced and put to use.
Auguste Mouchout was the first man to patent a design for a motor running on solar energy. Receiving funds from the French monarch, he designed a device that turned solar energy into mechanical steam power and soon operated the first steam engine. He later connected the steam engine to a refrigeration device, illustrating that the sun’s rays can be utilized to make ice! He was awarded a medal for this.

His groundbreaking research was cut short though. The French renegotiated a cheaper deal with England for the supply of coal and improved their transportation system for the delivery thereof. Mouchout’s work towards finding an alternative was no longer considered a priority and he no longer received any funding from the monarch.

1873

Willoughby Smith experimented with the use of selenium solar cells after discovering it’s sensitivity to light while testing material for underwater telegraph cables.

1876

William Adams wrote the first book about Solar Energy called: A Substitute for Fuel in Tropical Countries. He and his student Richard Day experimented with the use of mirrors and were able to power a 2.5 horsepower steam engine. His design, know as the Power Tower concept, is still in use today.

1883

An American inventor Charles Fritz turned the sun’s rays into electricity. His selenium solar cell had a conversion rate of only 1-2%. But was another huge milestone in solar energy history!

1885

Charles Tellier, a Frenchman who is known as the father of refrigeration, experimented with a non-concentrating/ non-reflecting solar motor. He installed the first solar energy system for heating household water on top of his own roof. However, his desire to pursue his refrigeration interests led to him to abandon all solar energy experiments.

1868

John Ericsson, an American immigrant from Sweden wrote these powerful words: “A couple of thousand years dropped in the ocean of time will completely exhaust the coal fields of Europe, unless, in the meantime, the heat of the sun be employed.” He dismissed Mouchout’s work and also developed a solar powered steam engine, very similar in design to Mouchout’s.

1891

History saw the first commercial solar water heater patented by Clarence Kemp an inventor from Baltimore.

1892

Aubrey Eneas formed the first Solar Energy Company – The Solar Motor Co. They sold the first Solar Energy system to Dr. A.J. Chandler of Mesa, Ariz for $2,160. It was destroyed less than a week later by a windstorm. They sold a second one to John May, but that one too, was destroyed by a hailstorm shortly afterwards. This led to the company’s downfall.

1904

Henry Willsie recognized the need to store generated power and built 2 huge plants in California. He was the first to successfully use power at night after generating it during the day. Even so, he was not able to make a sale and his company too folded.

1906 – 1914

Frank Shuman’s company, Sun Power Co, built the largest and most cost-effective solar energy system covering 10,000 square feet plus. Although it produced a lot of steam it did not produce enough pressure. Together with E.P. Haines he then formed Sun Power Co. Ltd. They built an irrigation plant just outside of Cairo, but unfortunately it was destroyed during the Great War.

1954

Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson and Daryl Chaplin of Bell Laboratories accidentally discovered the use of silicon as a semi-conductor, which led to the construction of a solar panel with an efficiency rate of 6%.

1956

The first commercial solar cell was made available to the public at a very expensive $300 per watt.

1950s – 1960s

Space programs employed solar technologies. In 1958 the Vanguard I was launched. The first satellite to use solar energy.

1970

The Energy Crisis ! (OPEC oil embargo). A bit of solar energy history we are all familiar with. Suddenly it became important to find an alternative form of energy as we realized just how reliant we really are on non-renewable, finite resources like coal, oil and gas for our existence.

Solar energy history was made as the price of solar cells dropped dramatically to about $20 per watt.

1980 – 1991

A Los Angeles based company called Luz Co. produced 95% of the world’s solar-based electricity. They were forced to shut their doors after investors withdrew from the project as the price of non-renewable fossil fuels declined and the future of state and federal incentives was not likely.

The chairman of the board said it best: “The failure of the world’s largest solar electric company was not due to technological or business judgment failures but rather to failures of government regulatory bodies to recognize the economic and environmental benefits of solar thermal generating plants.”

Today

There is a renewed focus as more and more people see the advantages of solar energy and as it becomes more efficient and more affordable.

Governments across the world offer financial assistance and incentives.

Solar electric systems are now used to power many homes, businesses, getaways, and even villages in Africa.

We see solar cells powering anything from household appliances to cars.

Solar power as a movement is gaining popularity among the people as awareness of it’s great benefit to us is being spread.

Solar Energy Facts

solar

General facts

  • Solar Energy production is better for the environment than conventional forms of energy production.
  • Solar energy has many uses other than electricity production. For instance heating of water with solar thermal energy, water treatment through solar distillation and chemical production through solar reaction.
  • Solar energy can be used to heat swimming pools, power cars, power phones, radios and other small appliances.
  • You can cook food with solar energy.
  • Solar Energy is becoming more popular each day. The world demand for Solar Energy is currently greater than the supply.

Facts about Solar Energy usage:

  • Solar Energy is measured in kilowatt-hour. 1 kilowatt = 1000 watts.
  • 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) = the amount of electricity required to power a 100 watt light bulb for 10 hours.
  • According to the US Department of Energy, an average American household used approximately 888-kilowatt hours per month in 2009 costing them $94.26.
  • About 30% of our total energy consumption is used to heat water.

Facts about Solar Energy systems:

  • A typical home solar system is made up of solar panels, an inverter, a battery, a charge controller, wiring and support structure.
  • A 1-kilowatt home solar system takes about 1-2 days to install and costs around $10,000 USD, but can vary greatly and does not take into account any incentives offered by the government.
  • A 1-kilowatt home solar system consists of about 10-12 solar panels and requires about 100 square feet of installation area.
  • A 1-kilowatt home solar system will generate approximately 1,600 kilowatt hours per year in a sunny climate (receiving 5.5 hours of sunshine per day) and approximately 750 kilowatt hours per year in a cloudy climate (receiving 2.5 hours of sunshine per day).
  • A 1-kilowatt home solar system will prevent approximately 170 lbs. of coal from being burned, 300 lbs of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere and 105 gallons of water from being consumed each month!
  • About 40 solar cells are usually combined into a solar panel and around 10-12 panels mounted in an array facing due North to receive maximum sunlight.
  • An average solar system usually comes with a 5-year warranty, although the solar panels are warranted for 20.
  • Relying on the battery back up, a solar energy system can provide electricity 24×7, even on cloudy days and at night.
  • Solar panels come in various colors.
  • Solar energy can be collected and stored in batteries, reflected, insulated, absorbed and transmitted.

Sun related Facts about Solar Energy:

  • Sunlight travels to the earth in approximately 8 minutes from 93,000,000 miles away, at 671,000,000 miles per hour.
  • Our sun is also the main source of non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, gas and petroleum), their energy was originally converted from sunlight by photosynthesis over millions of years.
  • Solar energy is responsible for weather patterns and ocean currents.
  • Clouds, pollution and wind can prevent the sun’s rays from reaching the earth.
  • The sun accounts for about 99.86% of the total mass of our Solar System.
  • Sunlight on the surface of the Earth is attenuated by the Earth’s atmosphere so we receive only 1,000 watts per square meter of its power in clear conditions.

Other Interesting Facts about Solar Energy:

  • In one hour more sunlight falls on the earth than what is used by the entire population in one year.
  • A world record was set in 1990 when a solar powered aircraft flew 2522 miles across the United States, using no fuel.
  • Fierce weather cost the world a record $130 Billion in the first eleven months of 1998- more money than was lost from weather related disasters from 1980 to 1990 ($82 Billion).
  • Researchers from the Worldwatch Institute and Munich Re blame deforestation and climate change from Earth warming for much of the loss. The previous one-year record was $90 Billion in 1996. Source – Associated Press, November 28,1998.
  • About 2 billion people in the world are currently without electricity.
  • Accounting for only 5 percent of the world’s population, Americans consume 26 percent of the world’s energy.
  • Electric ovens consume the most amount of electricity, followed by microwaves and central air conditioning.
  • Third world countries with an abundance of sunlight and a population currently without electricity, represents the fastest growing market for solar energy, with the largest domestic market being the utilities sector.
  • Shell Oil predicts that 50% of the world’s energy will come from renewable sources by 2040.