Solar technology, also known as photovoltaic (PV) technology, was first developed in 1839 during the Industrial Revolution when French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerellar discovered the ability of a solar cell to convert sunlight into electricity. Then, in 1883, Charles Fritts, an American inventor, created the world’s first rooftop solar array in New York.
Research on early PV technology was spurred on primarily by the U.S. government. What we now know as the modern PV cell was developed by Bell Labs in 1954, although solar power remained too costly for commercial use. Throughout the 1950s, research continued on PV technology’s potential to power satellites through funding from the U.S. military. In 1958, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory launched Vanguard I, the first spacecraft to use solar panels. A few years later, in 1964, NASA launched Nimbus I, the first satellite equipped with panels to track the sun.
In the early 1970s, an energy crisis hit the United States. The federal government’s oil price controls, combined with the Arab oil embargo of 1973, and the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act of 1973, caused an urgent need for the development of an alternative energy source. In 1974, Congress passed five energy bills – two citing solar power as a potential solution to the energy crisis.
Throughout 1974, Congress worked to centralize solar energy on federal buildings. The Solar Heating and Cooling Demonstration Act of 1974 ordered the installation of solar heating and cooling units on government buildings; and the Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1974 created the Solar Energy Coordination and Management Project. This was designed to direct agencies like NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to further improve solar technology specifically for heating and cooling government buildings. This act also created the Solar Energy Research Institute – a new federal office that opened in 1977 to conduct research and facilitate the use of solar power on an industrial level. The Institute still exists today as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) was another organization that was created by the 1974 legislation. ERDA was responsible for delivering comprehensive reports to the highest levels of government (including the president and Congress) on the development of solar. This was also part of the effort to commercialize solar energy.
Later on in the 1970s, President Carter further prioritized energy by signing the Department of Energy (DOE) into creation. Under the DOE, the Solar Photovoltaic Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1978 was created to make solar energy economically competitive in the market. However, the plan failed to increase America’s use of solar power and opposition from the House made energy tax incentives phase out. Solar tax credits, on the other hand, stayed on, and in 1992, the Energy Policy Act made them permanent.
The push for solar was rejuvenated in the early 200s with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct). High gasoline costs and the U.S.’s rising dependence on foreign oil spurred President Bush to back solar crediting again. Acts passed in 2006 through 2009 that extended the credit system and helped solar technologies break through to the residential sector. The government also continued to heavily subsidize the PV industry with research and development, commercialization, and regulatory support.
While solar technology was first developed almost two centuries ago, it is still working its way into being an economically efficient and commonly used energy source. Backed by government legislation and funding, the solar industry has received significant support especially since the 1970s, and its growth has only accelerated in recent years.
Imaged sourced from: The Obama White House Archives
Timeline image sourced from: IER