History of Solar Panel Technology – Timeline & Breakthroughs

Timeline of Solar Panel Technology

Solar energy development and use are not more than 60 years old. The history of the discoveries that led to the creation of the solar cell began almost 200 years ago.

These discoveries of the properties of light and electrical conductivity made solar energy what it is today.

Solar technology has transformed widely in the last 60 years. We have here prepared a timeline of solar power discoveries and inventions that led to their creation so you can better understand how the solar cell came to be.

1839: Discovery of the photovoltaic effect

The discovery of photovoltaic technology came from the research of a French physicist named Alexandre Edmond Becquerel, 1839, who discovered the photovoltaic effect.

Example Of Bulk Photovoltaic Effect
Example Of Bulk Photovoltaic Effect (Image source – Wikimedia.org)

When the material absorbs light, the process of photovoltaic effect occurs, and an electrical voltage is produced.

Most modern solar cells that are developed today use silicon crystals to achieve a similar effect.

1873-1876: Photoconductivity of selenium discovered

Willoughby Smith, an electrical engineer, first discovered the photoconductivity capacity of selenium.

He found that the selenium becomes electrically charged and conductive when it absorbs light from the Sun.

Three years later, William Grills Adams and Richard Evans Day found out that selenium could produce electricity from sunlight even if there is no heat.

They didn’t need the moving parts that are vulnerable to easy breaking. The discovery proved that solar energy could be easily harvested and stored for future use even if there is no sunlight.

And only fewer parts were required than other energy sources such as coal-fired power plants.

1883: First photovoltaic cell

This year, Charles Fritts, an inventor from New York, originated the first photovoltaic cell produced from gold-coated selenium.

This technological milestone allowed us to generate a continuous and constant current for maximum electrical conversion of 1%, while today, we have 20% efficiency.

In addition, silicon photovoltaic cells, with 6% conversion, were also manufactured by scientists at Bell Laboratories.

1887: the photoelectric effect is discovered

German physicist Heinrich Hertz observed the photoelectric effect by using light to free electrons from a hard surface (usually metal) to generate electricity.

Hertz found that this process produces more energy when exposed to ultraviolet light rather than the more intense visible light.

Scientist Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for explaining the effect in detail in a later year.

Modern solar cells that are developed today use this theory for converting sunlight into energy.

1930: Photovoltaic Effect Theory

The photovoltaic effect theory was instituted by Schottky, who, a few years later, created the first practical mono-silicon photovoltaic cell.

With that, the recognition of his approach made possible the use of solar panels in space in 1958.

1932: Discovery of the photovoltaic effect on cadmium selenide (CdSe)

Still used today, the material used to generate the photovoltaic effect, composed of cadmium selenide (CdSe), was discovered by Audobert and Stora in 1932.

1954: Silicon Doping Process

In 1954, chemist Calvin Fuller, from Bell Laboratories in the United States, developed the silicon doping process, which gave rise to the modern era in the history of solar energy.

In addition, Fuller shared his discovery with physicist Gerald Pearson, who developed improvements to the experiment.

1954: Creation of the modern solar cell

Although its origin was in 1839, solar energy was studied for many years until the application of techniques to develop its cells, such as that carried out by scientist Russell Shoemaker Ohl in 1954. This invention was called the modern solar cell.

1958: Beginning of use of solar panels

The beginning of the use of solar panels took place in a surprising way. In 1958, a 1W panel was attached to the Vanguard I satellite, which was sent into space to power its radio on the voyage.

From this, the first photovoltaic systems were implemented for homes, establishments, and even for means of transport, such as buses, ships, and planes.

1976: Creation of the first amorphous silicon cell

In 1976, engineers David Carlson and Christopher Wronski, from RCA Laboratories, created the first amorphous silicon cell, which has an efficiency of 1.1%.

1982: construction of the first solar power plan

Arco Solar developed the first solar park – the backbone of a solar power plant – in Hesperia, California, in 1982. This solar power plant generates 1 MW or 1000 kWh at full capacity. This allows a 100 kilowatt light bulb to be powered for 10 hours.

Arco Solar established a second solar park in Carrizo Plain, California, in 1983. It was the widest collection of solar panels in the world at that time, with 100,000 batteries generating 5.2 megawatts when operating at full capacity.

Although this solar power plant has fallen into disrepair due to the return of oil’s popularity, it has demonstrated solar power’s potential for industrial production.

1992: Thin Film Cell Creation

In 1992, at the University of South Florida, a thin-film cell was developed, which is 15.89% effective.

1994: First solar cell that exceeded conversion efficiency by 30%

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) produced the first cell that concentrates 180 suns of GaInP/GaAs, or indium gallium phosphide/gallium arsenide, making it the first solar cell that exceeded the conversion efficiency by 30%.

1995: retractable solar panels created

Solar research continues to expand to other industries: Thomas Faludy applied for a patent in 1995 for retractable canopies with integrated solar panels.

This was one of the first times when solar panels were used in recreational vehicles.

Today, this function is a popular way to recreational power vehicles (a specialized car or trailer for caravan enthusiasts, divided into functional sections – kitchen, bedroom, living room, toilet, shower, etc.).

2000: Use of grid-connected photovoltaic systems

In 2000, photovoltaic systems connected to the grid were created in most First World countries in order to supply energy to the conventional grid.

Since its implementation, the world’s annual production has risen to 4,200 MWp of photovoltaic cells.

2005: homemade solar panels became popular

As the technology and efficiency of solar panels have increased, the use of solar energy for the home has become increasingly popular.

Homemade solar panels hit the market in 2005 and spread more and more every year.

Today, there are many ways found to make your own solar panels, from assembling a solar array kit to planning a solar array string.

2006: New record for obtaining a solar cell with 40% efficiency

For the first time, the use of polysilicon solar cells catches up with the rest of photovoltaic technologies in 2006.

2011: Growth of solar factories in China, reducing manufacturing costs

In 2011, Chinese solar factories expanded rapidly, making manufacturing costs more affordable, with less than $1.25 per watt for each silicon photovoltaic module produced. As a result, installations have grown around the world.

2012: Regulation of RN 482 of Aneel

Normative Resolution No. 482, instituted by Aneel in April 2012, establishes that the general conditions for micro-generation and distributed mini-generation access to the electric energy distribution systems and the electric energy compensation system will be valid.

Therefore, the resolution allows any consumer to generate their own renewable energy connected to the distribution network, with the accumulation of energy credits, including authorizing the necessary criteria for the connection of solar energy systems to the grid.

2015: Normative Resolution 687/2015 by Aneel

Aiming to improve RN 482/2012, in 2015, Aneel determined that generators with power up to 75 kW would be considered as photovoltaic microgeneration, while generators above 75 kW and less than or equal to 5 MW would be regarded as mini-generation.

In addition, it created modalities for distributed energy generation: remote self-consumption, shared generation, and projects with multiple consumer units (generation in condominiums).

2016: Opening of Thermal Photocells working without the Sun

A team of expert researchers from the University of California, Berkley, and Australian National University has discovered new nanomaterial properties.

One of these properties is defined as magnetic hyperbolic dispersion, which means that the material glows when heated. Combined with thermo-photovoltaic cells, it can convert heat into electricity without sunlight.

Present Market of Solar Energy

Currently, solar photovoltaic technology is growing strongly, and the leaders in this market are China, the USA, India, and Middle Eastern countries.

According to the latest study released by the IEA, the installed capacity of solar energy worldwide reaches 321GWp. The ENF portal has more than 43 thousand registered companies that perform some type of specific function within the photovoltaic market.

Of these, there are more than 28 thousand companies that call themselves photovoltaic designers and installers. There are more than 2000 photovoltaic module manufacturers and more than 800 inverter manufacturers.

Future of Solar Energy

Solar energy is transforming itself from an alternative to a necessity. The energy demand driven by technological evolution and consumer electronics generates a very optimistic scenario for renewable energies, especially photovoltaic solar.

The act of generating energy itself represents a revolution in the behavior of those who previously only consumed energy and now can generate this much-needed good.

And for the future, solar energy could be the most important source of energy that will power our electric cars, our smart homes, and more.


In short, solar energy has passed through numerous variations before taking the form that it is today. However, the basic technology of generating solar power remains the same.

The only thing that has changed over the years is its current competitive cost compared to conventional energy. Best of all, this technology shows no signs of slowing down – if anything, it is advancing at an unprecedented rate.