People have worshiped the sun and found ways to channel its energy to improve their lives since early times. As far back as 400 B.C., ancient Greeks designed their homes to take advantage of the sun’s warmth and light by having the structures face south to capture more heat in the winter. (This is known as “passive solar energy,” an old technology that is still used today.) The ancient Romans later improved on these designs by adding more windows to the south side of homes and by putting glass panes in the windows, which allowed more heat and light into buildings. The Romans were also the first to use greenhouses to grow plants and seeds. The Greeks and Romans were among the first to use mirrors to reflect the sun’s heat to light fires.
According to a history of solar energy published at the Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA) Web site, the artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci envisioned concentrating collectors that would focus sunlight into a central receiver in the 1500s. Da Vinci even built a rough collector in 1515. More than two centuries after da Vinci’s experiments with solar energy, Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure built the world’s first working solar collector in 1767. Later, in 1890, French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, the physical process through which a photovoltaic cell converts sunlight into electricity.
In the following years, many scientists studied photovoltaic technology, but it was not until 1954 that the U.S. company Bell Labs developed the first solar photovoltaic device that produced a useful amount of electricity. In 1956, architect Frank Bridgers used photovoltaic technology to design the Bridgers-Paxton building, the world’s first commercial office building featuring solar water heating and passive design. People were finding different opportunities to use solar energy, and in 1958 the SEIA reported that, “solar cells were being used in small-scale scientific and commercial applications, including the space program.”
The energy crisis in the 1970s caused the U.S. government to increase research on renewable energy sources, including solar power. Although it was cost-prohibitive at the time to use solar power on a large scale, photovoltaic cells began to be used in remote applications, especially in the telecommunications industry.
The first solar electric generation station plants were built in California’s Mojave Desert from 1984 through 1990. They are still in operation today.
Costs to develop solar power technologies have decreased greatly in recent years. State and federal government policies are encouraging the growth of the industry as a means to help the United States gain energy independence from foreign countries and create energy technologies that are more environmentally friendly.
In 2012, solar energy made up 2 percent of all renewable energy in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. Its potential as a major energy source is largely untapped.
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