The ABC’s of Photoelectric Solar Power History


ABC's of Solar
ABC’s of Solar

  Meet Willoughby Smith, a man with more hair in his mossy sideburns than most other men could claim from top to bottom. Smith was in charge of testing the transatlantic telegraph cables before their burial thousands of feet underneath the Atlantic Ocean. The electrical engineer tried to test the cables’ conductivity using selenium bars, which worked well at night and erratically during the day. Smith decided to find out why. In 1873, he wrote in a Nature publication that the electrical conductivity of the selenium roads increased when exposed to strong light.

Solar power is nothing new. The Lakota harnessed photosynthesis to grow Three Sisters gardens of corn, beans and squash. Ancient Greek urban planners oriented whole cities to maximize winter heat gain. The Roman Justinian code ensured that every citizen had “sun rights” for individual solar access through rooftop sunrooms and public spaces. More recently, however, the sun has been undervalued. Women tan. Kids burn ants. But the discovery of Willoughby Smith will change everything.

wilhoughby smith
Willoughby Smith

(Technically, French scientist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect back in 1839, but Smith had superior sideburns). Most men, if given gold, would immediately purchase a box of chocolates and mark Valentine’s Day off their calendars. American inventor Charles Fritts was different. In 1883, he coated a selenium wafer with a layer of gold, exposed it to light, and wrote himself into history as the inventor of the first photoelectric cell. Unfortunately, it had a lackluster conversion efficiency of about one percent.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published a paper explaining the photoelectric effect. Being Einstein and all, he won the Nobel Prize for his work in 1921 and helped jumpstart 80 years of frantic innovation. NASA slapped photovoltaic cells on satellites. France built a solar furnace with an 8-story parabolic mirror. Australia invented the Quiet Achiever, the world’s first solar-powered car. Cities installed ever bigger photovoltaic solar factories, and scientists designed ever more efficient solar cells.

But the real breakthrough occurred in 2001, when three Home Depot stores in Southern California sold AstroPower photovoltaic panels. AstroPower, sadly, went bankrupt. Home Depot then partnered with BP Solar. That didn’t work out too well either, but that’s not the point.  For the first time, photovoltaic solar power is no longer just for NASA and top secret government labs.  The government getting behind solar and encouraging people to go solar by offering a 30% tax credit has definitely played a role in the massive number of people going solar.  When you grasp the idea that you no longer just have to put with the massive utility company’s arbitrary rate hikes who don’t answer to their customers but only to shareholders people take notice.  When you add availability plus opportunity magic happens. If you are ready to get your piece of the magic, (we can make your utility bill dissappear) then give us a call.  We’re Sunpro Solar, and we’re on the leading edge of solar history let’s write the next chapter together.  Call now for your free estimate and find out what is possible.


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