Solar Energy for Residential Use
Solar panels are everywhere. They power roadside phones, power plants and homes. This is due to the extraordinary advancements in the field of solar energy during the past hundred years.
However, mankind has a long history of using the sun’s energy. Even the ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese used glass and mirrors to concentrate sunlight and light fires. In the 1800s scientists began experimenting with the photovoltaic effect, which uses sunlight to create electricity. For many years, the experiments continued, but they never produced a usable amount of electricity. Finally, in 1954, scientists at Bell Laboratories built the first solar cell to use silicon. These cells were finally able to power basic electronics. Suddenly, solar energy use had a place outside of the lab and its potential grew exponentially.
Solar energy grows from industrial to residential use
After Bell Laboratories pioneered the silicon solar cell, it focused on making the solar cells more efficient. They made significant improvement, taking it from 4 percent efficient in 1954 to 14 percent efficient in 1960. NASA saw the potential in solar energy and asked Bell Laboratories to create a solar panel for one of their satellites. In 1958, NASA launched Vanguard I into orbit, the first satellite, and first product, to rely on solar energy. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the biggest customers of solar energy were space programs around the world. Many attempts were made to commercialize solar energy systems, but the high production costs made it difficult.
Finally, in the 1970s, Dr. Elliot Berman and the Exxon Corporation designed a solar cell that cost significantly less to manufacture. It was in this decade that industrial use of solar panels really began to build momentum. Dr. Berman was able to reduce the cost of solar panels from $100 per watt to $20 per watt by using cheaper materials. His new design coincided with the energy crisis of the 1970s. The crisis sent the price of oil higher than it had ever been and people began looking for alternative forms of energy. This is when solar energy saw its first major public interest. Solar panels started being used on lighthouses, offshore oil rigs, railroad crossings and remote locations. In 1973, the University of Delaware even built Solar One, one of the first solar powered residences. People began to see solar energy as a viable option for their homes.
During the 1980s, home solar installations slowed down as traditional energy again dropped in price. In 1982, Kyocera Corporation developed a new casting method to mass produce solar cells. This method is still the industry standard and it once again significantly cut manufacturing costs. Unfortunately, traditional energy was still cheaper.
Finally, in the 1990s, federal governments began to get involved in the research and development of solar energy. They even developed grants and tax incentives for people who used solar systems. Since then, manufacturing costs have continued decreasing and efficiency has increased. Home installations began increasing exponentially. We have reached a point today when home solar energy systems are a beneficial addition to nearly every home. Solar energy now competes financially with traditional forms of energy and offers the added benefit of energy independence and a lower environmental impact.