Who Invented Solar Panels, When, and for What? The Surprising History of Solar

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Solar Panels | March 15, 2024

Woman standing next to a solar panel and a picture with a mystery person and wondering, who invested solar panels, what are photovoltaic panels, when were solar panels invented, and what is the history of solar panel technology and solar panel production?

Solar panel technology has evolved over many centuries, but who invented solar panels and who was the first person to harness the sun’s energy to generate electricity?

Solar panels are a remarkable invention and are becoming vital in homes, businesses, and transportation as the world moves away from fossil energy associated with environmental pollution.

But, since static electricity was ‘discovered’ in 600 B.C., how did we get to the point where we can charge an electric vehicle using the sun?

This guide explains who invested solar panels and how the interesting and surprising history of solar panels came about.

Who Invented Solar Panels? Solar Panel History

To those asking, who invented solar panels, while no individual can take credit for developing solar panels, an interest in solar panel technology began in the mid-19th century.1

Solar panels, also known as photovoltaic panels or cells, have undergone gradual improvement over time by different scientists.2

In 1839, for instance, a photovoltaic effect discovery by Alexandre Edmond Becquerel in which light would be converted into electricity marked the beginning of solar energy research and development.

A few years later, an American scientist, Charles Fritts, invented the first solar panel cell from selenium on a metal plate.

A person holding a cell from a solar panel with sunflowers in the background.

(Image: Mb-bn15)

Scientists improved this concept while testing different elements to enhance energy proficiency. Thus, over decades, technological advances in solar energy have led to cheaper production techniques, new materials such as silicon, and proficient energy storage solar technology.

Solar panels offer the best alternative energy sources for domestic and industrial applications in ways that reduce over-dependence on oil, gas, and nuclear energy, making sustainable use of natural resources important.

More importantly, when used in residential applications, they reduce drains on the energy grid, without causing damage to the ecosystem.

Since solar panels (on a farm) require huge swaths of land, which are covered by the panels, the eco-impact can be severe. However, when they are added to existing structures, this problem is nullified.

Related Reading: Why is Sustainable Use of Natural Resources Important?

When Were Solar Panels Invented? (Who Invented Solar Panels?)

Solar panel history dates back to the 19th century. The photovoltaic effect discovery in 1939 by Charles Fritts, a graduate of Cornell University, led to the creation of the first solar panel cell, and was able to convert sunlight into electricity by 1883.

Although the selenium cell technology was groundbreaking, its effectiveness was in doubt. However, in 1954 three American scientists, Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin, and Calvin Fuller from Bell Labs developed modern solar panels from silicon.

The efficacy of these new panels to convert sunlight into electricity was remarkable, thus, ushering in a new era of solar panels and the push for renewable energy solutions. Unlike selenium-based solar cells by Charles Fritts, which had 1% efficiency, silicon-based solar cells attained an efficiency of 6%, a giant leap in terms of improvement.3

At that point, Bell Labs sought to patent their invention, leading to the development of the solar industry today.

In 1956, Hoffman Electronics sold its first solar panel for use in space satellites.

Solar Panel Definition: What Does Solar Mean?

While solar is anything related to the sun, solar energy converts light to electricity.

Solar technologies such as photovoltaic and thermal collectors tap solar energy from the sun in photons.

A solar energy-powered light post with solar panels attached at the bottom which are directly hit by sunlight.

(Image: Kindel Media16)

So, what is the solar panel definition?

A solar panel is a gadget that converts sunlight into electrical energy. Usually, solar panels include a collection of photovoltaic cells created from silicon and other materials working together to absorb and convert light energy into electricity for domestic and industrial use.

Thus, whenever sunlight strikes the out surface of a solar panel, it activates an electron reaction generating environmentally friendly clean energy. However, it is pertinent to understand various terminologies for solar panel definition, as indicated below.

Wattage: This is the amount of power that a panel can generate. Since solar panels are produced in different sizes and output levels, one should understand their energy needs to select the right panel.

As a term, efficiency is the panel’s capacity to convert sunlight into electricity; panels with optimum efficiency generate more power with less space.

Net metering: Homeowners with solar energy systems get compensation for the additional power they add to the grid. This enables homeowners to save money and contribute to a cleaner environment.

What Are Photovoltaic Panels?

Popularly known as solar panels, photovoltaic panels are electrical devices that convert light into electrical energy.

They are created from silicon, a semiconductor material that absorbs photons from sunlight while releasing electrons that produces electricity.

Photovoltaic panels have become trendy because of their capacity to generate clean and renewable energy. A photovoltaic panel is made up of two sandwiched silicon wafers.

A row of large solar panel systems with 28 photovoltaic panels on each system.

(Image: Webandi17)

The upper layer is doped with boron, a low-concentration impurity that creates a positive charge carrier. On the hand, the lower layer is doped in high-concentrated phosphorous to create a negative charge carrier.

So, when light photons hit the panel’s outer surface, they create free charge carriers by displacing electrons. This is the first step for generating DC converted into AC for domestic and industrial use.

Photovoltaic cells generate clean energy free from greenhouse pollutants. This makes photovoltaic cells ecologically friendly.

Apart from easy installation, these panels are a better option because they do not require a large surface area to generate electricity like wind turbines. Despite the immense benefits of photovoltaic panels, they also have limitations.

Efficiency is one of the significant limitations of photovoltaic panels. The most effective photovoltaic cells can only convert about 20% of solar energy into electricity.4,5

This also means about 80% of solar energy is lost as heat. Thus, generating adequate electricity from photovoltaic panels would take significant space and colossal investments.

Since photovoltaic cells require proper sunlight for optimum performance, they may not work perfectly in cloudy areas or regions with less exposure to sunlight. Though it is a renewable energy source, producing photovoltaic cells requires enormous energy and chemicals affecting the environment.

Solar Panel Technology

As a critical component of the renewable energy revolution, solar panel technology has become important lately as the world embraces cleaner, greener energy sources. With new developments emerging every day, solar panel technology is evolving each passing day.

However, silicon-based panels made from layers of silicon are popularly used. Not only are silicon-based solar panels cheaper to manufacture, but they have also been reliable over the years.

Thin-film solar cells made from photovoltaic material are equally gaining traction.6 Unlike silicon-based panels, thin-film solar panels are flexible and widely used in different applications.

Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) is another solar panel technology making inroads. As opposed to other solar technologies that absorb light energy, CSP uses mirrors or lenses to concentrate light onto a surface to generate heat, which is then converted into electricity.

CSP may change solar energy generation moving forward because of its potential to create large amounts of energy in areas with high solar radiation. Despite solar panel technological advancement, the issue of efficiency remains the biggest challenge.

With 15-20% efficacy, further developments are required for the solar panels to generate enough energy. Nonetheless, researchers are working to enhance the efficacy of solar panels and develop zero-emission cars; green energy will soon replace non-renewable sources.

Solar Panel Production

Solar panel production aims for domestic and commercial applications.

Additionally, production begins with material selection.

A factory showing equipment and interior of a solar panel production factory.

(Image: ThePictureBox18)

Although silicon materials are used in producing solar panels, aluminum, plastic, and fiberglass panels are also used.7 Silicon is often washed using hydrofluoric acid to eliminate dirt that may affect the efficacy of solar panels at the outset.

Then, an anti-reflective coating is used to enhance absorption. The second phase includes creating solar cells by making the p-n junction.

The p-n junction converts sunlight into electricity. This is followed by adding boron and phosphorus on any side of the silicon panel to create two semiconductors.

The n-type semiconductor exhibits an excess of electrons; however, the p-type semiconductor, which has a deficit of electrons, creates a potential difference leading to electric energy generation. Subsequently, various solar cells are connected in a series to form a module.

This is achieved by fastening wires to the terminals while placing a layer of EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) to protect cells. Ultimately, panels are framed with aluminum to protect cells from exterior damage.

The last phase of solar panel production is testing and quality control to determine their integrity. Before leaving the factory, solar panels are tested for efficiency and an output voltage that should fall within the rated power threshold.

Modules that fail to meet these requirements are either discarded or reconfigured.

What Is a Solar Panel Used For?

A solar panel converts sunlight into electricity to generate clean energy. Photovoltaic (PV) cells in a solar panel absorb sunlight as DC.

With the help of an inverter, DC is transformed into AC. The central purpose of a solar panel is to generate clean electrical energy with many applications.

Electricity from solar panels has various applications, including powering homes, businesses, vehicles, and communities. Also, using solar panels for power generation has many benefits.

Since solar energy is renewable, it is easy to replenish, making it sustainable and cheap in the long run. Again, solar energy is ecologically friendly and is the best option for conventional fossil fuels, including coal and oil, which are scarce resources.

Moreover, solar panels generate clean energy devoid of greenhouse emissions and other pollutants.8 Unlike conventional power generation, such as gas turbines and diesel generators, characterized by noise pollution, the silent nature of solar panels makes them environmentally friendly.

Solar panels are cheaper to install over the primary power grid in remote areas. The accelerated technological change has made solar panels effective and cheaper, making them the best alternative energy source for home and commercial applications.

Solar panels would shape these conversations following the contended climate change and ecological conservation debates.

When Were Solar Panels First Used?

The invention of solar panels marked the beginning of renewable energy use. These changes started in the nineteenth century when scholars sought ways to harness green energy to power homes, vehicles, and cities.

The first solar cell was used in the space industry in 1954 and ’58.9 While using a small solar panel, the U.S. could launch Vanguard I then.

Essentially, solar panels are widely used in the space industry because they generate energy in remote areas.

Who Owns First Solar (First Solar Panels)?

The advents in solar panel technology led the world away from fossil fuels to embrace renewable energy sources.

However, Calvin Fuller, Daryl Chapin, and Gerald Pearson are among the owners of the first solar.

Fabricated in 1954, the original solar panel had an efficiency of 4%. This technological fete paved the way for a series of experiments culminating in the creation of modern panels.

Modern solar panels used on solar energy systems, situated on a plain with a hill on the background.

(Image: Pixabay19)

Also, this set the accelerated pace and quest for renewable energy. While high costs and inefficiency characterized the initial stages of solar panels, mass production in the 1970s brought the costs down.

Again, the recent fabrication of solar panels has made it cheaper to install solar panels in homes, commercial spaces, and utility firms.

Which Country Invented Solar Panels?

Aside from wanting to know who invented solar panels, everyone wants to know the country that invented solar panels. What becomes apparent is that researchers and scientists of different nationalities working as a team birthed the solar panel technology.

Primarily, in 1839 Edmond Becquerel, a French physicist, discovered that certain materials could generate an electric charge when exposed to light.10 These solar panels were inefficient in many ways.

However, Becquerel’s discovery was imitated in 1873 by Willoughby Smith, an English electrical engineer who found that selenium was a suitable semiconductor for the photovoltaic effect.

The breakthrough emerged in 1876 when Richard Day and William Grylls Adams in England discovered that selenium could produce electric current, particularly when exposed to light.

Five years later, an American inventor, Charles Fritts, designed the first commercial solar panel, though ineffective. Further improvements led to the creation of modern solar panels in 1939 by Russel Ohl, an American engineer.11

Ohl’s technique was first used in 1954 in Bell Laboratories to make the first silicon solar cell. With an efficiency of 6%, Laboratories engineers became motivated by Ohl’s patent.

This breakthrough helped shape the production of modern solar panels, recognizing the U.S. as the country that invented solar panels.

How Much Power Does a Solar Panel Produce?

Solar panels are innovative in harvesting power from sunlight via the Photovoltaic effect. Nevertheless, the question of how much power does a solar panel produce depends on several factors, including;

  • Size of solar panel: A large solar panel has a large surface capable of generating more energy than a small one. As a result, it is necessary to choose a suitable solar panel based on the application.

For example, using a large solar panel in areas that require a small panel would lead to inefficient use of solar energy resources, while using small panels in a large area would lead to under-utilization.

  • Solar panel efficiency: It is crucial to note that positioning solar panels is vital. Specifically, a solar panel directly facing the sun will generate more energy compared to a panel partially under the shade.
  • Solar panel location: The amount of sunlight varies based on region and season, which can affect the amount of energy. In cloudy or rain-prone regions, solar panels will generate less energy compared to sunny areas.

What Are the Different Types of Solar Panels?

The differences in solar panels revolve around carbon footprint. When buying a solar panel, it is only prudent to check out its carbon footprint. Common types of solar panels include;

Monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film solar panels. Monocrystalline silicon panels: These panels effectively absorb and convert light into solar energy.

Since monocrystalline panels exhibit optimum proficiency, they are suitable for commercial and domestic applications.

Monocrystalline solar panels lodged in the roof of a house.

(Image: Watt A Lot20)

Polycrystalline silicon panels: Unlike monocrystalline, polycrystalline panels are less efficient. However, they are cheap and suitable for commercial applications.

Thin-film panels: These panels are made from cadmium, amorphous silicon telluride. Since these panels are less effective, malleability makes them ideal for different applications.

Solar panels have a lifecycle of approximately 20-40 years, making them sustainable in the long term. Humans are keenly interested in knowing who invented solar panels, but they should worry more about reversing the carbon footprint.

How Long Do Solar Panels Last?

Solar energy is rapidly becoming popular due to its cost-effectiveness and environmental friendliness in generating electricity. But then, people are concerned about how long do solar panels last.

Solar panels can last up to 20 and 40 years.2 Furthermore, their lifespan depends on the installation procedure.

Correct installation is necessary for the durability and performance of solar panels. Poorly installed solar panels are susceptible to damage, which shortens their lifecycle.

Professional experts should be consulted to install solar panels to guarantee a lengthy lifespan. Regular maintenance, especially repair, and cleaning can elongate the lifecycle of panels.

Regular cleaning helps remove dust, dirt, or pollen, which ensures they retain energy efficiency. Moreover, routine inspection helps fix any damages affecting performance and lifespan.

Harsh climatic conditions also impact the lifecycle of solar panels. For example, hailstorms, extreme cold or heat, and strong wind can cause damage while reducing the panels’ lifespan.

The quality of the material used in the manufacture also affects the lifecycle of solar panels. Quality materials resist harsh climatic conditions and guarantee solar panels’ continuous power generation.

In contrast, low-quality materials can reduce the performance and efficiency of solar panels.12

Do Solar Panels Work on Cloudy Days?

Solar panels are a sustainable energy source, but many people wonder, do solar panels work on cloudy days?

Nevertheless, cloudy days affect their efficiency because they decrease the amount of energy reaching the solar panels.

Low-angle shot of solar panel system with an overcast in the background.

(Image: Bartymaus21)

Clouds block sunlight making the panels generate less power. However, solar panels with solar photovoltaic cells do not require direct sunlight.13 PV cells are more efficient in cool temperatures.

Although solar panels can generate electricity during cloudy days, they are often inefficient.

Thus, panels should adequately be installed with a MPPT charge controller to optimize efficiency on cloudy days and allow sunlight to diffuse.

What Is the Size of a Standard Solar Panel?

Having a rough idea of the size of standard solar panel remains paramount. In most cases, the size would enable one to gauge its performance.

Besides, the capacity of the solar panel to generate electricity is pegged on its size. Again, solar panel measurement is shaped by solar cells.

And this is a factor during construction. The solar panel size determines the amount of sunlight a panel can absorb.

The size of standard solar PV cells is 156 mm by 156mm.

What Are Carbon Footprint Solar Panels? Was This a Big Issue to the Person Who Invented Solar Panels?

While carbon footprint has attracted enormous attention now, it was a nonissue when solar panels were first invented. Nonetheless, carbon footprint solar panel can reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.

Unlike fossil fuels, solar panels generate electricity from the sun. Thus, solar panels considerably minimize carbon footprint because they depend on renewable energy without emitting toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.14

However, the manufacturing and disposal of solar panels produce a carbon footprint that is pretty high. This amount is offset slightly if the form of energy replaced was generated by fossil fuels (like coal and gas), but less so when replacing hydro electric or nuclear sources.

As technology advances, the energy required to produce solar panels gradually decreases, making them more viable and sustainable. Solar panels generate clean electricity, but the location matters to the planet as well.

When asking who invented solar panels, know that it took many centuries to get to where we are today.

Read More About Who Invented Solar Panels


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