Believe it or not the history of solar energy goes back over 2,000 years to the Greek and Roman ages who were the first civilization to actually plan their houses to make the best use of the suns rays, for both light and heat. The famous Greek philosopher Socrates, in histories first recorded writing on renewable solar energy concerning the power of the sun when he commented that all buildings should be south facing so that they got maximum sun in the winter.
The Roman aristocracy took it a step further when they made the first historical use of glass window panes on the south facing side of the villa’s, the immense cost meant that only the very richest class could do this. Two ancient civilizations both suffering from what might be regarded as a modern predicament that of energy shortages, in this instance the was not enough wood to go round, wood being the dominant source of heat.
Following the fall of the Roman Empire solar energy was forgotten about for well over a thousand years.
Until well into the 1800’s it was generally assumed that the worlds supply of fossil fuels was so vast that it would never be exhausted, particularly when new resources were regularly being found. In 1861 Auguste Mouchet built a steam engine that was heated entirely by the sun, however the machine proved to be expensive to maintain and coal prices were falling so he could not secure backing for more development. He then went on to make a study of the burgeoning needs of industry and commented that industry’s demands for coal would soon deplete reserves and then what would happen?
There continued to be an interest in solar power and in everything electric from then on, an fascinating fact is that although we think of battery powered vehicles as cutting edge technology, up till around 1905 there was a larger proportion of electric vehicles on the road till modern times. Their development was stopped because battery technology was unable to practically overcome the weight of the batteries themselves. The World speed championship of 1905 had more electric cars entered than gasoline engine vehicles, it was won by a gasoline engine car with a top speed of 60 miles per hour, that and the falling cost of gas prevented commercial research until the oil crisis of 1973 refocused attention on solar and other alternative types of energy, this almost brings the history of solar energy up to date.
Serious interest in solar power, up until the 50’s, was limited to scientific research, although the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Albert Einstein for his research into the principle of photoelectric effects on electrical generation. However it remained almost entirely a scientific research project till 1953 when Bell Laboratories created a silicon based solar cell that was able to create some electricity, however after three years of development it still cost sixty times as much to generate a watt of electricity making use of solar as opposed to using fossil fuels. So research was cut right back till the oil crises of 1973.
Governments of every country suddenly had to wake up to a world where the oil prices doubled overnight so huge investment was put into the search for more cost effective solar cells and twenty years later in the 1990’s we had efficient residential photovoltaic cells, but by then the oil crisis had been over for some time and gas was again inexpensive and plentiful but for how long?
Over the last 10 years solar cells have risen in efficiency and fallen in price to a point where homemade solar panels are a viable option for Do It Yourself home solar energy, ready to start writing your own history of solar energy.