Solar Energy – A Brief History in the United States

The technology to derive substantial electrical current using light from the sun has been around since the mid 1950’s when the first solar cell was created by Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson at Bell Labs – they developed the first solar cell capable of generating enough power from the sun to run everyday electrical equipment. A silicon solar cell was produced that was 6% efficient. They were later able to increase efficiency to eleven percent.

Anyone who is aware of the ability to harness sunlight into electrical energy just has to recall from Jr. High School Science Class that Electricity produced by a solar cell is only good if the sun is shining directly onto the a photovoltaic solar cell.

With basic knowledge that solar cells product Direct (un-fluctuating) current, it stands to reason that there are two, very costly obstacles that stand in the way of practical solar power: 1) how to convert the current from direct current (DC) to Alternating Current (AC) so that it can be used in the common household and 2) how to practically store the energy for use when needed after the sun had set or gone behind the clouds.

By the time solar technology had developed and become less expensive to produce, our nation’s infrastructure had already established and built around the standard of AC at 110 volts and 15 amperes. A big expense to the use of solar cells is the requirement for use expensive power inverters to convert it from DC to AC.

With help from Exxon Corporation in 1970, a significantly less costly solar cell was designed by Dr. Elliot Berman. His design decreased the price of solar generated power from $100 per watt to $20 per watt. Although, still costly, this was a giant leap into the feasibility of the use of practical solar power

In 1976, the NASA Lewis Research Center began to install the first of many photovoltaic systems on every continent in the world with the exception of Australia. Those systems provided power for vaccine refrigeration, room lighting, medical clinic lighting, telecommunications, water pumping, grain milling, and classroom television. The project took place from 1976 to 1985, and then again from 1992 to its completion in 1995. By time the project was completed, 83 stand-alone systems were in place. These areas where systems were installed were solar installers wauchope obviously devoid of practical on-grid systems.

In July of the same year, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration which was the predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Solar Energy Research Institute. And in 1977, total photovoltaic manufacturing production exceeded 500 kw (kilowatts). This was only enough power to light 5,000, 100-watt light bulbs.

In 1982, the first megawatt-scale PV (photovoltaic) power station went on line in Hisperia, California. The systems capacity was 1-megawatts and was developed by ARCO Solar. The U.S. Department of Energy and an industry consortium began operating Solar One, a 10-megawatt central-receiver demonstration project in California which established the feasibility of power-tower systems. During this same time, an Australian named Hans Tholstrup drove the first solar-powered car – the Quiet Achiever – almost 2,800 miles between Sydney and Perth in 20 days. This was 10 days faster than the first gasoline powered car. Tholstrup is now the founder of a world-class solar car race, Australia’s World Solar Challenge.

Two other significant from 1982 which shaped the history of solar energy; Volkswagen of Germany began testing photovoltaic arrays mounted on the roofs of Dasher station wagons which generated 160 watts of electricity for use in the ignition system; and the Florida Solar Energy Center’s Southeast Residential Experiment Station began supporting the U.S. Department of Energy’s photovoltaics program in the application of systems engineering. Worldwide, photovoltaic production then exceeded 9.3 megawatts.

In 1986 the world’s largest solar thermal facility was commissioned in Kramer Junction, California. The solar field contains rows of mirrors that concentrate the sun’s energy onto a system of pipes circulating a heat transfer fluid. The heat transfer fluid, used to produce steam, powers a conventional turbine to generate electricity. While

Researchers at the University of South Florida developed a 15.9% efficient thin-film photovoltaic cell made of cadmium telluride, breaking the 15% barrier for this technology, a 7.5-kilowatt prototype dish system that includes an advanced stretched-membrane concentrator began operating in Florida.

The first solar station to distribute electricity produced from solar collectors was Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in 1993, in Kerman, California. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (formerly the Solar Energy Research Institute) completed construction of its Solar Energy Research Facility and became recognized as the most energy-efficient of all U.S. government buildings in the world.

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