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”
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
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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 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
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 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