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The History of Solar Energy

Updated: Jun 6, 2019

Today’s solar technology is an established technology. Solar energy, also known as solar photovoltaic (PV) technology, was discovered over 150 years ago. It’s important to note, that solar energy has been harvested long before modern history. In the 1700s, the first solar-powered oven was invented for domestic use. In this article, we have highlighted the milestones related to solar photovoltaic (Solar PV) technology, along with the science and legislation behind it.

1839 - The Industrial Revolution

French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerellar first demonstrated the photovoltaic effect, or the ability of a solar cell to convert sunlight into electricity. 1

1841 - Russell Ohl's Develops Silicon p/n Junction Cells

With the discovery of silicon solar cells, solar becomes practical as an energy source, reaching efficiencies above 5% 1

1876 - Photovoltaic Discovery for Modern Solar Cell

William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day discovered that illuminating a junction between selenium and platinum has a photovoltaic effect. This first demonstrated that electricity could be produced from light without moving parts and led to the modern solar cell. 2,3

1883 - Charles Fritts Creates the First Working Selenium Cell. 1

1884 - World’s First Rooftop Solar Array

Charles Fritts' selenium cells are used to create the world’s first rooftop solar array. It is installed on a New York City rooftop. 1

1905 - Albert Einstein Publishes “Concerning an Heuristic Point of View Toward the Emission and Transformation of Light”

explaining the process of how light produces electricity through the photoelectric effect and the theory of relativity. 1

1921 - Albert Einstein is Awarded The Nobel Prize

for his discovery of the Photoelectric Effect and Theory of Relativity. 1

1950’s- U.S. Military Funds Research on PV Technology

and its potential to power satellites. 4

1954- Bell Labs Develops the Modern Photovoltaic (PV) Cell 5

1958 – First Spacecraft to use Solar Panels

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory launches Vanguard I, the first spacecraft to use solar panels 6

1964 - NASA Launches Nimbus I

the first satellite equipped with panels that tracked the Sun 7

1973- United States Energy Crisis

catalyzing the US federal government’s commitment to developing solar energy. 8

1974 - “Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1974”

Congress passes two energy bills that cited solar power as a potential solution to the energy crisis - The Solar Energy Coordination and Management Project and The Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). 9,10,11

1977 - The Solar Energy Research Institute

created by the US Government, to conduct research and facilitate the industrial use of solar power. The Institute still exists today as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. 11

1977- President Carter Labels the Energy Crisis as the “Moral Equivalent of War”

President Carter makes energy policy a top priority of his administration. He signed the Department of Energy (DOE) Organization Act in 1977. The agency was activated on October 1 of that year. 12,13

1978 - Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978

Passed by Congress, which, among other things, lays the foundation for future net metering policies. The Act requires utilities to purchase electricity from “qualifying facilities” such as distributed solar generation. 14

1978 - Energy Tax Act of 1978

Congress creates the commercial investment tax credit (ITC) and the residential energy credit (or residential ITC). Both provide financial incentives for the public to purchase solar properties. The residential energy credit is calculated at 30 percent of the first $2,000 spent on qualifying solar expenditures. It is then calculated at 20 percent of the next $8,000 spent on solar for a maximum of $2,500. 15

1978 - Solar Photovoltaic Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1978

Passed by Congress, the Act directs the DOE to “prepare a plan for international marketing of PV systems.” At the signing, President Carter frames the bill as authorizing “an aggressive program of research, development, and demonstration of solar photovoltaic energy technologies.” He says its “long-term goal is to make electricity from photovoltaic systems economically competitive with electricity from conventional sources.” 16,17

1979 - President Carter Installs Solar Panels on the White House

to generate interest among Americans and promote the use of solar energy for residential use. 18

1980 - Crude Oil Windfall Profit Tax Bill

Opposition in the House of Representatives successfully phases out billions in energy tax incentives for domestic crude oil. Both solar tax credits were extended through the mid 80s). 19

1992 - Energy Policy Act

Makes the commercial ITC permanent (after 4 previous extensions, including the Tax Reform Act of 1986. 20

The Second Push for Solar Energy

2005 - Energy Policy Act (EPAct)

Launches as a result of declining domestic oil production and rising oil imports throughout the early 2000s. It is the first omnibus legislation dealing with energy policy since 1992. President Bush says at the signing ceremony that the bill “launches an energy strategy for the 21st century.” Bush sites “high gasoline costs” and “the rising dependence on foreign oil” to justify the legislation. EPAct raises the commercial ITC to a temporary 30 percent rate and reinstates the residential ITC after a 20-year hiatus. The residential credit is capped at a $2,000 benefit for PV solar installations. It is scheduled to retire at the end of 2007. 21, 22

2006 - The Tax Relief and Health Care Act

Extends the solar credits through 2008 and opens the residential credit to all solar technologies, eliminating the previous language that limited it to PV property. 23

2008 - Emergency Economic Stabilization Act

(P.L. 110-343), also known as the “bailout.” Congress extends the ITC again through 2016 and eliminates the $2,000 cap for solar PV properties in the residential credit. 24, 25

2009 - The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“The Federal Stimulus”)

This Act extends massive new subsidies to the solar industry. One of the most significant and expensive energy policies in the stimulus is Section 1603. This section allows companies to take a cash grant equal to 30 percent of the cost of their solar system in lieu of the ITC. 26

2011 and 2012 - The Government Accountability Office

In addition to tax credits and grants, the office finds that there are at least 345 solar-related initiatives supported by six government agencies. 27

2015 – Today = The Age of Solar Power

Today, the future of solar power is brighter than ever. Almost every environment is capable of harnessing the power of the sun’s unlimited resources, including entire states and countries! The cost of fossil fuels continues to rise. The cost of solar energy has dropped to record lows, as does the cost of rooftop installation. The government continues to heavily subsidize the solar industry with research and development, commercialization, and regulatory support. While it’s clear that so much has already been achieved, we know that solar’s greatest achievements are still yet to come.

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[1] “First Photovoltaic Devices,” PV Education.org, accessed April 1, 2019. http://www.pveducation.org/pvcdrom/manufacturing/first-photovoltaic-devices

[2] Eoearth.org “Search – The Encyclopedia of Earth” assessed April 1, 2019. https://editors.eol.org/eoearth/index.php?title=Special%3ASearch&profile=default&search=the+encyclopedia+of+earth&fulltext=Search

[3] Smith, Zachary Alden; Taylor, Katrina D. (28 July 2018). "Renewable and Alternative Energy Resources: A Reference Handbook". ABC-CLIO.– via Google Books. Assessed April 1, 2019. https://books.google.com/books?id=OlA-fN3Bd4QC&pg=PA155#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4] California Solar Center, “Passive Solar History: Photovoltaics,” accessed April 1, 2019.


[5] US Department of Energy (DOE), “The History of Solar,” Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, accessed April 1, 2019. https://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/pdfs/solar_timeline.pdf

[6] G.N Tiwari and Swapnil Dubey, Fundamentals of Photovoltaic Modules and Their Applications, p. 121, The Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, December 2009.

[7] NASA, “Nimbus: NASA Remembers First Earth Observations,” October 8, 2014, http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/nimbus-nasa-remembers-first-earth-observations

[8] Robert Bradley & Thomas Tanton, U.S. Petroleum Refining: Let the Market Function, Dec. 19, 2005, https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/studies/petroleum-refining-and-the-free-market/

[9] Alice Buck, “A History of the Research and Development Administration,” U.S. Department of Energy, Office of History and Heritage Resources, March 1982, http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/ERDA%20History.pdf

[10] Solar Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-473) http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-88/pdf/STATUTE-88-Pg1431.pdf

[11] Alice Buck, “A History of the Research and Development Administration.” March 1982. US Department of Energy. https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/ERDA%20History.pdf

[12] Jimmy Carter, Address to the Nation on Energy, Transcript, Miller Center at University of Virginia, April 18, 1977, http://millercenter.org/president/speeches/speech-3398

[13] DOE, “History of the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Energy,” accessed April 1, 2019. http://www.lm.doe.gov/land/sites/oh/fernald_orig/aboutfernald/dhist.htm

[14] David Newton, Solar Energy: A Reference Handbook, p.231, ABC-CLIO, LLC: Santa Barbara, California, 2015.

[15] Margot L. Crandall Hollick and Molly F. Sherlock, “Residential Tax Credits: Overview and Analysis,” March 18, 2014, Congressional Research Service http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-110publ343/pdf/PLAW-110publ343.pdf

[16] Solar Energy Legal Biography: Second Update, p. 49, Solar Energy Research Institute, Golden, Colorado, May 1981.

[17] Jimmy Carter: “Solar Photovoltaic Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1978 Statement on Signing H.R. 12874 Into Law,” November 4, 1978. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=30122

[18] http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/thepresidentandcabinet/tp/History-of-White-House-Solar-Panels.htm

[19] Margot L. Crandall-Hollick and Molly F. Sherlock, “Residential Energy Tax Credits: Overview and Analysis.” April 9, 2018. Congressional Research Service. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42089.pdf

[20] Energy Policy Act of 1992, P.L. 102-486 (Title XIX)(subtitle A)(sec. 1916).

[21] George W. Bush, “President Signs Energy Policy Act,” Transcript, August 8, 2015, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2005/08/20050808-6.html

[22] Energy Policy Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-58)(Title XIII) (subtitle C)(sec. 1337)(a)(A)(i), http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-109publ58/pdf/PLAW-109publ58.pdf

[23] Margot L. Crandall Hollick and Molly F. Sherlock, “Residential Tax Credits: Overview and Analysis,” March 18, 2014, Congressional Research Service, http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42089.pdf

[24] Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-343)(Title III)(division B)(sec 103)(a)(1), http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-110publ343/pdf/PLAW-110publ343.pdf

[25] Michaela D. Platzer, “U.S. Solar Photovoltaic Manufacturing: Industry Trends, Global Competition, Federal Support” Congressional Research Service, January 27, 2015, Congressional Research Service.

[26] American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act of 2009, Division B of Pub. L. 111-5, 123 Stat. 115 (2009).

[27] GAO, Report to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate: Renewable Energy, Federal Agencies Implement Hundreds of Initiatives, February 2012, http://www.gao.gov/assets/590/588876.pdf

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