Who Invented Solar Power?


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In 1953, Bell Laboratories (now AT&T labs) scientists Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin and Calvin Fuller developed the first silicon solar cell capable of generating a measurable electric current. The New York Times reported the discovery as “the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of harnessing the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”    In 1956, solar photovoltaic (PV) cells were far from economically practical. Electricity from solar cells ran about $300 per watt. (For comparison, current market rates for a watt of solar PV hover around $5.) The “Space Race” of the 1950s and 60s gave modest opportunity for progress in solar, as satellites and crafts used solar paneling for electricity.    It was not until October 17, 1973 that solar leapt to prominence in energy research. The oil crisis demonstrated the degree to which the Western economy depended upon a cheap and reliable flow of oil. As oil prices nearly doubled over night, leaders became desperate to find a means of reducing this dependence. In addition to increasing automobile fuel economy standards and diversifying energy sources, the U.S. Government invested heavily in the solar electric cell that Bell Laboratories had produced with such promise in 1953.    The hope in the 1970s was that through massive investment in subsidies and research, solar photovoltaic costs could drop precipitously and eventually become competitive with fossil fuels.    By the 1990s, the reality was that costs of solar energy had dropped as predicted, but costs of fossil fuels had also dropped—solar was competing with a falling baseline.

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