It may surprise you to find out that solar energy is not a recent invention. Many believe the concept of solar energy panels began in the 1970s and 80s and then for some unknown reason, lost popularity and moved into the shadows of other energy producing methods.
In 1839, Alexandre Edmond Becquerellar, a French physicist, was the first person to demonstrate a photovoltaic devise that converted sunlight into electricity.
In 1883, Charles Fritts, an American inventor, installed the first solar panel array on the roof of a New York rooftop.
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In 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper explaining how sunlight can produce electricity. He won a Nobel Prize for his paper in 1921.
In 1954, Bell Labs developed the modern photovoltaic cell, the basis for many modern solar panels that ended up adoring rooftops across America.
In 1964, NASA launched the first satellite that used solar panels to produce its electricity in outer space.
By the early to mid-1970s, many energy conservation crazed Americans jumped onto the solar panel bandwagon and had the panels attached to their rooftops. In many cases, the solar panels were primarily used for heating water instead of the traditional water heater.
However, solar panels were not cheap and the high cost of purchase and installation prevented many American homes from taking advantage of solar energy.
Over the years, many businesses have tapped into the use of solar panels to heat water and provide electrical power for other purposes, but few relied on solar panels to produce all their electrical needs.
As the idea of conservation of animals and the environment became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, the quest for larger and improved solar energy panels and plants became the focus of attention from many countries and companies.
In some areas of the world, largely desert areas, huge solar power plants began to spring up. One facility, a 75-story solar energy tower in the Joshua Tree National Park was constructed and began producing power only to run into issues with many of the same conservationists who pushed for the project in the first place. Turns out that intense rays of solar heat emanating from the solar tower began instantly cooking and killing birds flying too near. When environmentalists learned that some of the birds were on the rare and endangered species list, they got all up in arms. Many went from pushing for an environmentally friendly solar power production plant to pushing to close the same solar power plant.
Today, the need for more electrical power and the push to convert to green energy has resulted in the production of more solar energy power plants. According to one report:
“Solar and wind is now the same price or cheaper than fossil fuels in more than 30 countries, the WEF reported in December (pdf). As prices for solar and wind power continue their precipitous fall, two-thirds of all nations will reach the point known as “grid parity” within a few years, even without subsidies. ‘Renewable energy has reached a tipping point,’ Michael Drexler, who leads infrastructure and development investing at the WEF, said in a statement. ‘It is not only a commercially viable option, but an outright compelling investment opportunity with long-term, stable, inflation-protected returns.’”
“Those numbers are already translating into vast new acres of silicon and glass. In 2016, utilities added 9.5 gigawatts (GW) of photovoltaic capacity to the US grid, making solar the top fuel source for the first time in a calendar year, according to the US Energy Information Administration’s estimates. The US added about 125 solar panels every minute in 2016, about double the pace last year, reports the Solar Energy Industry Association.”
However, the question of private home solar power being affordable has yet to be resolved. I contend that as long as major power companies maintain their political power and influence, such home solar energy panels will remain an item for the wealthy, even though affordable technology already exists.
In the 1970s and 80s, there was a guy in our church that worked for a major technology company. He had a PhD in physics and worked on solar energy. He not only told me that the technology to supply affordable solar energy to every home is possible, he showed me.
Richard invited my wife and I over for dinner once and to show me his house. He had a very nice three level home with lots of windows. The very center of the house was open from the ground floor up so that people could see and converse from the first, second and third floors. The livable square footage in his house was almost three times what my house was.
It was not uncommon for my summer electric bills to run around $350-$400 per month trying to keep our 2,300-square foot house comfortable in the Arizona sun. Other homes the size of Richard’s had summer electric bills easily exceeding $1000-$3,000 per month. Richard told me that his summer electric bills ranged from -$150 to -$400 per month.
His small solar panel system was so efficient that about 9-10 months a year, it produced more than his household (wife and three daughters) could use. The excess power was run through a meter and sold back to the utility company. In the course of an entire year, his small solar panel array made him money.
He then took me to his back yard to show me the solar panel array that he built. It wasn’t nearly as large as I expected. As Richard proudly showed me the solar unit, he explained that one thing that made it more efficient than most is that he had a solar light detector that helped keep the panels lined up with the sun’s rays to keep them running at peak capacity. As sun moved across the sky, the panels also changed angle to follow it.
I asked him how much it cost to build and install his solar panel system and he told me that for a house like his, it would pay for itself in less than a year. For smaller homes, he estimated it would take about 2 years to pay for itself. His solar units were unlike any that I’ve seen on homes then or since. The home solar units in use today still do not use the same high efficiency levels as the one he built.
However, he told me that the technology he used would probably never see public or commercial use because it would cost the power companies millions of dollars in lost revenue. My friend Richard told me that the energy companies work very closely with all major technology companies to ensure that they both continue to make money. Then Richard told me that if a company mass produced solar units like, that it would bring the cost way down from what he spent out of pocket. Mass production would make the solar units much more economically feasible for many homeowners, but the utilities won’t allow it to happen.
In the meantime, power companies continue to build huge solar energy power plants but continue to charge the same or higher electrical rates to their customers. Yes, there is a cost to building and maintaining these facilities, but once build, they require a very small staff to operate and sunlight is free, unlike coal or oil.
Yet, we still don’t see affordable solar panels available for the average home owner. In sunny climates like Arizona, solar panels on every home could save homeowners thousands of dollars in energy bills in only a few years. However, I still wonder how efficient they would be in places like northern Kentucky that experiences nearly 200 cloud days a year, compared to the over 300 sun days back in Arizona?