The History and Progress of Solar Energy Systems

The idea of turning light into energy was being considered by Edmund Becquerel back in 1838. He made observations and even published his findings concerning his ideas. They were never pursued. A solar powered motor was patented late in the nineteenth century using French funds. Auguste Mouchout designed a clever device which turned solar power into steam powered mechanics. This led to the first steam engine.

Ironically he also demonstrated how the sun’s energy could be used to make not only fire but ice. He combined his steam engine with a refrigeration device and was acclaimed by winning a medal for his pursuits. Even back then however, coal got in the way of advancing the technology in France when England agreed to supply coal cheaply with improvements being made to the transportation system. Alternative energy supplies were no longer a priority.

In 1873 Willoughby Smith was a Brit. He did experiments using selenium solar-cells. He discovered its sensitivity to light while doing material research for underwater telegraph and cable development. A book on solar energy was written several years later by William Adams. It was the first book on the subject calling it “A Substitute for Fuel in Tropical Countries”. Working with mirrors as a method of approach Smith and his assistant Richard Day powered a 2.5 horsepower motor rivaling the previous one of Mouchout’s.5 horse power engine. His basic model is still in use today. It is called Power Tower.

Other names contributed to the progress of solar power into the twentieth century. Charles Fritz created a solar cell with an almost two percent conversion rate. A French man, Charles Tellier was interested in pursuing refrigeration technology but he invented a solar powered water heater and used it on his own home.

The first solar energy company was The Solar Motor Company in the late 1890s. Two big plants made in California in 1904 by H. Willsie used stored energy at night that was gathered into batteries the day before. In the mid fifties the use of silicone semi-conductors was discovered by three Bell Laboratories by accident. They were Calvin Fuller, Daryl Chaplin and Gerald Pearson. That led to a PV cell that preformed at an efficiency rate of six percent. The first solar panels sold to the public were very expensive. In 1956 a solar panel cost an average of $300 US per watt. In 1958 solar energy was used to power the Vanguard I. It was the first satellite to use solar energy to make electricity.

The US began to recognize its dependency on non-renewable sources such as coal, gas and oil. It became important to seek viable alternatives in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo and the energy crises of the 1970s. Solar energy history was established after the price per watt reached around twenty dollars.

The chairman of the largest solar electric company- Luz Company, based in Los Angeles- said that the failure of the company (after investors withdrew their support) was not because of technological failures or because of bad business judgments. Its failure was the result of government regulatory committee’s inability to see the economic benefits of solar energy generating plants. Today we see a renewed focus. Many people recognize the benefits of solar energy. And it is becoming increasingly more affordable. Today’s governments across the world our sponsoring programs to promote the growth of the solar power industry in their own countries.

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