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A Short History of Solar Energy Panels and Systems

February 24, 2023

Solar energy is perhaps the most abundant, clean, and renewable power source we can dream of, and we can harness it better than ever! While humanity and solar power have been interconnected for thousands of years, we have only recently discovered how to turn the sun’s rays into usable electricity. Read on to learn a short history of solar energy panels and systems.

Early Solar Technology

A long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, ancient Greeks were the first to observe and record the power of the sun. They discovered that if they used reflective surfaces, such as polished bronze shields, they could focus sunlight to light fires. An empire later, the Romans used glass to magnify the sun’s rays, and they used solar power to heat water for their public baths.

However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the first true solar cell came to be. In 1839, French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect. He found that when he illuminated certain materials with light, they produced a small electric current.

It took until 1883 for American inventor Charles Fritts to build the first practical solar cell by coating selenium with a thin layer of gold. While the efficiency of the first solar cell was less than 1 percent, this cell became the foundation that scientists have spent decades improving.

Major Breakthroughs in Solar Tech

The modern era of solar energy began in 1954, when Bell Laboratories created the first practical solar cell using silicon. The researchers discovered that by modifying silicon with impurities, they could create a semiconductor that could convert sunlight into electricity. Their first crack at a solar cell could convert about 6 percent of sunlight energy into electricity—a definite improvement from 1883.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, aerospace was the main user of solar technology. NASA used solar cells as power sources for their spacecraft, and cells became an essential component of telecommunications equipment. Unfortunately, the cost of solar panels was still too exorbitant for the average person to use in their home.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the National Energy Act into law, establishing tax credits for homeowners who equipped their houses with solar panels. One year later, a Massachusetts home did just that and became a testament to the incredible possibilities of solar power. With that demonstration of solar power’s viability, more and more Americans began outfitting their homes with panels.

A few years later, in the 1980s, the cost of solar panels began its steady decline, which helped them to become far more accessible to homeowners. Governments around the world—including our own—began offering incentives to encourage people to install solar panels. At the same time, companies were finding new ways to improve efficiency in solar cells, which further drove costs down.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, we’ve seen perhaps the biggest growth in solar panels yet. With upgraded efficiency and drastically reduced installation costs, solar panel systems began to look more and more like a no-brainer for homeowners.

Today, solar panels are widely accessible, but some governmental incentives are ending soon. There has never been a better time to install solar panels, especially with rising energy costs all over the world.

Advancements in Solar Technology

One of the biggest challenges with solar power has always been the nature of our planet. Solar panels generate the bulk of their electricity when the sun is shining, which means that stretches of cloudy days result in lower yields. However, advancements in battery technology, such as the Tesla Powerwall, have made it possible to store excess solar energy and use it when the sun is hidden behind the clouds.

Another recent development in solar technology is that of thin-film solar cells. These cells are made from lightweight, flexible materials, such as plastic or metal, and can install on a variety of surfaces. This makes them a great option for buildings with complex shapes or uneven surfaces.

Solar Energy in New Mexico

With abundant sunshine and a more easygoing regulatory environment, solar panel installers and customers have a fantastic place for solar energy in New Mexico. These factors have been instrumental in making this state a hub for solar energy research and development.

Back in the 1970s, New Mexico was among the first states to offer homeowners tax incentives for installing solar panels. As an early adopter of such a progressive policy, New Mexico quickly became one of the easiest places for homeowners to reap the benefits of solar technology.

A few decades later, in the 2000s, New Mexico had a solar boom along with the rest of the world. With a newly implemented renewable portfolio standard, utilities had to generate a certain amount of energy from renewable sources. With this policy in place, solar power plants sprang up all over the state, including one of the largest solar plants in the world: the Mesquite Solar 1 facility.

Now, New Mexico is one of the top places to be for solar energy. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the state has over 1,400 megawatts of installed solar capacity—enough to power over 250,000 homes! New Mexico has also set a bold goal: 100 percent electricity generation from renewable sources by 2045. Naturally, such a goal requires a massive expansion to solar, wind, and hydroelectric energy sources over the next few decades.

For the last several years, New Mexico has been at the forefront of solar energy research and development. As the home of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Solar Energy Research Facility, cutting-edge research is happening in the state right as you read this! You can also find many of New Mexico’s top universities studying solar energy and performing solar research today.

Now that you know a short history of solar energy panels and systems, remember that solar panels are more efficient and accessible than ever. Plus, they offer a range of benefits to you and your household. With continual innovation and improvement, NM Solar Group is confident that solar panels are the energy source of the future!

A Short History of Solar Energy Panels and Systems

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