Solar Energy History and Development

About the history and development of solar energy or the use of sun light to generate electricity.



Although the sun has always been the ultimate source of most of the earth's energy, until very recently plants did the job of capturing its power--in wood, coal, natural gas, and oil. Inventions like Nicholas de Saussure's 18th-century solar oven were no more than scientific curiosities; the direct use of solar energy was limited mainly to such commonsense ploys as positioning houses to catch the sun's rays.

But in the 20th century, solar technology has been poised for takeoff--several times. Thousands of solar water heaters were installed in California and Florida in the first half of the century, then fell out of use (they are still wide-spread in Japan, Israel, and Australia). Fears about energy shortages in the late forties and early fifties led to a 1952 prediction (by the President's Materials Policy Commission) that solar heating systems would supply 10% of U.S. energy by 1975.

That prediction stumbled on formidable obstacles: solar energy's own underdeveloped technology and manufacturing, distribution, and maintenance systems; the coal, oil, and natural gas industries, suppliers of cheap energy; and the developing nuclear power industry, backed by the Atomic Energy Commission. Solar energy could not compete, and nobody seemed interested in investing big money for research to lower the cost and improve the performance of solar devices.

Then, in the 1970s, came another, and this time possibly significant, spurt of interest. The search for alternatives to gas and oil resulted in the 1974 establishment of the Energy Research and Development Administration (now subsumed by the Dept. of Energy). ERDA's budget for solar, wind, biomass, and ocean thermal projects rapidly climbed from $35 million in fiscal 1976 to $167.5 million in fiscal 1977. Although solar energy development was still getting less government money than nuclear power projects, the pendulum was beginning to swing. Moreover, a number of major corporations, particularly in the aerospace, oil, and electronics industries, were showing greater interest.

By 1977 the two-year-old Solar Engineering Magazine, official publication of the Solar Energy Industries Association, was reporting dramatic increases in sales of solar water and space heating systems, and suppliers of solar equipment were popping up like violets in springtime. But a Stanford Research Institute report issued by ERDA predicted that "even though ultimate large-scale use of solar energy is likely, substantial efforts will be required to realize a large solar market share during the next half century."

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