This post was written in collaboration with EcoFlow
We’re now getting to the stage where solar power is a viable energy alternative that’s completely changing the face of sustainable living – but it has been a long and rocky road. Today, large buildings and even small communities run on the sun’s rays, and the evolution of solar panels and lower costs means that choosing solar energy to power your home is now not only possible, but often a better option.
Changing the World
Solar energy has changed dramatically in a relatively short space of time. Even 30 years ago, the idea of having portable power stations capable of powering a campervan or a small home would have sounded like science fiction, but that’s where we currently are.
Solar panels with higher efficiency than ever are also now affordable, solving one of the significant problems that long posed a problem in the industry: cost. With affordable power stations now available, generating solar energy and storing it in a battery to power your appliances has become a sustainability option many long craved but always remained well out of reach.
So how did we get here?
Think solar energy is just a late 20th Century invention? Think again.
As early as the 7th Century BC, the Egyptians used the sun’s rays to light fires using obsidian, a dark volcanic glass-like material made mostly of silicon. If you’ve ever used a magnifying glass to start a fire, you use the same process.
Hundreds of years later, the Romans and Greeks used the sun’s energy by reflecting sunlight off mirrors – known as burning mirrors – to light large torches used in religious ceremonies. It was also common to have ‘sunrooms’ in bathhouses or more expensive homes where south-facing windows drew in the sun’s warmth and heated the room much more than in other areas.
The Long Path to Solar Panels
Some inventions are easy to attribute to a specific person, but solar panels are no such invention. Instead, it was a case of several people making groundbreaking discoveries over more than 100 years that eventually delivered early rudimentary solar panels.
In 1839, French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered that light could increase electricity production if you put two metal conductors into a conducting solution – a major breakthrough termed the “photovoltaic effect.”
In 1873, Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium, a natural mineral found in soil, had photoconductive potential. This eventually led to Richard Evans Day and William Grylls Adams discovering in 1876 that you could produce electricity by exposing selenium to sunlight.
However, there was still a long way to go. In 1883, Charles Fritts created the first solar cells made from selenium wafers, but it wasn’t until 1954 that Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin, and Calvin Fuller produced the first photovoltaic (PV) cell.
With the high costs associated with early solar panels, it was probably no surprise that their use was limited – at least down on Earth. In 1958, NASA’s Vanguard I satellite used a small one-watt solar panel to power its radios, and just eight years later, the Nimbus became the first satellite able to operate entirely using solar energy with a 470-watt array.
This period also saw a significant technological jump when Hoffman Electronics increased the efficiency of its solar panels from 8% to 14%, and in 1973, the University of Delaware constructed the first ever solar-powered building, dubbed ‘Solar One‘.
Powering Sustainable Living
Progress over the next fifty years wasn’t exactly fast. The biggest changes came in efficiency, which has — for now — settled at a high in the low 20s, though this number could theoretically eventually become much higher.
Price was another major change as solar panels became much more affordable between the 1950s and today.
These changes have completely opened up solar possibilities, and portable power stations the size of small bags attached to state-of-the-art solar panels can now produce enough electricity to power a wide range of things.
Cheap solar energy has neatly coincided with the rise in popularity of tiny homes and the resurgence of van life, a popular counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s that’s coming back into fashion as people seek a more affordable and alternative way of living.
It may have been a long and challenging road to get to where we are today, but we can now finally enjoy and maximize the fruits that the sun has always delivered. There’s the argument that solar energy has only really taken off due to a better understanding of climate change — which is probably valid to some extent — but whatever the true reason, we’re now entering a golden age for solar power.
2022 analysis by the International Energy Agency found that renewables, grids and storage now account for more than 80 per cent of total power sector investment globally, while battery technology is also advancing. Options beyond lithium and cobalt (which currently have many supply chain issues) include vanadium, which can charge and discharge over tens of thousands of cycles without degrading; new combinations of materials such as sodium, zinc, nickel, iron, manganese, aluminium and silicon; solid-state batteries, with cells up to 10 times more energy dense; lithium-sulphur batteries; and potentially sustainable organic materials such as cellulose and water-based electrolytes in the future.
It’s clear that there is also an urgent need to clean up solar supply chains. In 2022 Community Energy England set up a working group to focus on the ethical sourcing of solar. Ethical Consumer also have a solar buying guide online that also acknowledges the shortcomings in this area, while European solar continues to advance as a more ethical alternative, but there is still more to be done.
Those who take steps to implement solar technology into their lives can benefit from a wide variety of benefits, including reduced utility costs, a lower carbon footprint, and more. All of this is now more attainable than ever since better technology and lower costs have combined. Once the industry fully commits to creating better supply chains and human rights across the board, the future could look very bright indeed.