Many consumers assume that solar power is a relatively new power source but this could not be further from the truth. The sun has been known to be a source of energy dating back to ancient times. The ancient Greek and Native Americans were the first to use solar power to their benefit, dating back as early as 400BC. Native Americans and the ancient Greek built their houses into the side of hills to take advantage of the heat storage from the sun during the day that would then be released during the night.
The Romans took their knowledge of the sun being a source of energy as they were the first people to use glass windows to trap the warmth of the sun in their homes. They were so serious about the preservation of this solar energy that they erected glass houses to create the right conditions to grow plants and seeds.
While many people were benefitting from solar power it wasn’t until 1776 that the first solar collector was built. This collector was built by a gentleman named Horace de Saussare. His collector was cone shaped and would boil ammonia that would then perform like refrigeration and locomotion. This first solar power collector attracted much interest in the scientific community through the 19th century.
In the interest of making use of solar power, Auguste Mouchout created a steam engine that was powered only by solar energy in 1861. This was an exciting event, but the invention was very costly and it could not be reproduced or even maintained so the steam engine was quickly forgotten.
While the solar powered steam engine wasn’t viable in 1861 this did not stop the efforts of many who knew that solar power could be harnessed and used in many different ways. It was during the 1880’s that the first light converting photovoltaic cells were built. These cells were made of selenium and had an efficiency of one to two percent. I was not long after, in 1891, that the first commercial solar water heater was patented by Clarence Kemp, an American.
For the next 50 to 60 years the developments were not as bold, but even Albert Einstein was working on using solar power, he was even granted a Nobel Prize in physics in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect. While the years of solar power went by quietly, in the 1950’s the development of solar power was benefitted by the production of the Czochralski meter. This was a process that produced pure crystalline silicone and by 1954 Bell Telephone Laboratories had developed a silicon photovoltaic cell that had a four percent efficiency that was later boosted to an 11% efficiency.
It was during the later half of the 1950’s that solar power saw its first mainstream usage. The first solar water heated office building was built during this time by an architect named Frank Bridgers. A short time later a small satellite of the US Vanguard was powered by a solar cell of less than one watt.
After such big strides in the 1950’s, one would assume that solar power really took off, but oil prices have held back an even more mainstream usage of solar power. In the 1960’s the oil prices were so cheap that it was more affordable for people to power their homes with oil than it was to power their homes or offices with solar energy.
Solar power saw a rebirth in the 1970’s with the oil embargo. This was a great opportunity to utilize solar power; in fact the US Department of Energy financed the Federal Photovoltaic Utilization Program. This program was responsible for the installation and testing of over 3,000 photovoltaic systems.
The 1990’s brought an even more mainstream interest in solar power. The Gulf War once again made many take note of where we get oil and had some worried about our dependence on foreign countries for our energy resources. Solar power was seen as a great alternative to oil and petroleum products. During the 1990’s over one million homes had some form of solar power installed.
Today solar energy is used in a couple different manners. First is the photovoltaic conversion format, which most people know as solar panels. These panels are used to create electricity directly from the sun. These panels can be used alone or can be used in conjunction with other power resources. The second type of solar power that is used today is thermal solar power, which is where the sun is used to heat fluids, which then powers turbines or other types of machinery.
While solar power is more commonly used today than any other time in history, the fundamentals are about the same as they have always been. The power of the sun is used to heat liquids just as it was used to heat space in ancient times. The photovoltaic technology has been updated so that the panels are thin and smaller, but the technology is basically the same.
The reason for this is that when the sun is over head, an acre of land receives four thousand horse power of power at any time! The sun always has been, and always will be, a tremendous source of power, which leaves no question that with the improvement of technology, our ability to harness this power will only become greater and more widespread in its use.