A History of Solar Panels: Who Invented Solar Panels?

3 min read

If you’re considering solar panels as an addition to your home’s electrical needs, you’ve likely done some research on their installation and care. But have you wondered how solar panels got their start, when they weren’t so readily available for homeowners to use as part of a greener, leaner, carbon footprint? Let’s dive into the discovery of solar energy and how that ultimately led to the invention of solar panels. 

Solar Energy and Early Solar Devices

It all began in 1839. French physicist, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel, observed and identified the photovoltaic effect, a process by which an electrical current is produced by light. The photovoltaic effect intrigued scientists and inventors in the following years. Mathematician Augustin Mouchot, in the 1860s, started to obtain patents for solar-powered engines and machinery. By the 1880s, inventors across the world had begun to patent various solar-powered devices. 

In 1883, American inventor, Charles Fritts, invented the first solar cell. It was a bar of selenium coated in gold, and it maintained an energy conversion rate of 1 to 2 percent. For reference, most modern solar cells have an energy conversion rate of 15 to 20 percent. 

Solar cells continued to improve through the 1880s. Russian scientist Aleksandr Stoletov discovered how to power a solar cell using the photoelectric effect, on which modern photovoltaic effects are based. The photoelectric effect occurs when light strikes a material and releases electrons. Albert Einstein himself, in the distant future of 1905, would write a paper better explaining these processes. From here, plenty of innovation in solar-powered engines and thermal batteries happened, but we’ll skip to the next big chapter in how modern solar panels were formed.

Panels, Silicon and Solar Innovation

In 1939, Bell Laboratories engineer, Russell Ohl, submitted a patent for what we now know as the modern solar panel. His patent called for the purification of metalloid crystals to form a solar cell. This process created a material that was much more conductive for solar energy. Adding silicon to this process only enhanced the effect. 

Silicon became the primary material used in solar panel production as a result of Bell Laboratories’ discoveries in the 1950s. Their silicon-based solar cell had a 6 percent energy conversion rate, which was a significant step up from the previous rate. However, it was costly. The general public likely couldn’t afford these solar cells. 

That isn’t to say that Bell Labs’ discovery wasn’t put to use. The University of Delaware built one of the first solar-powered buildings using the techniques discovered by Bell Labs. However, instead of solar panels, the building’s roof had solar cells built in. The U.S. also sent the first solar-powered spacecraft, Vanguard I, up to the atmosphere in 1958.

The 1970s Energy Push

Solar panels may not have become a household power source without the energy crisis in the 1970s. This led to the U.S. Congress passing the Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1974. Thanks to the Act, solar energy became more available to the public, and scientists and inventors had the means to create more innovations in the industry. As a result, solar power has grown in popularity over time. Without this decade’s push to invest in solar, the industry may not be as thriving as it is today. 

So, Who Invented Solar Panels?

The truth is: there is no one answer to this question. As with many modern appliances, inventions were patented by one scientist, and continuously improved by others. We couldn’t have one single solar device without preceding breakthroughs. You could credit Ohl with the design of solar panels as we know them, or Bell Labs for using silicon as the primary material. You could even go all the way back and thank Becquerel for discovering that solar energy could be used as an energy source! 

We Know Solar

Pink Energy proudly uses silicon monocrystalline solar panels based on all the innovations listed above. We’re knowledgeable and passionate about the solar industry, and our local team of solar experts would love to discuss what going solar could look like for your home’s unique energy needs. Talk to us today for a free quote!