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More homeowners are turning to solar power

The Examiner

Call me a dreamer, but I have been thinking about solar energy for decades – literally. If I could have, I would have added solar energy when we first built our house in 2005. 

Lynn Youngblood

However, when I finally made the last payment on the land is when the building materials market jumped after Katrina, and Hurricane Wilma in the same year. Sheetrock, lumber and sheet metal all jumped to new market highs.

I was wondering who invented solar energy. When did it all begin?

I have been doing a little digging and it turns out that in the seventh century B.C., people used magnifying glasses to start fires. Today, we are familiar with sunrooms. This term actually comes from iconic Roman bathhouses, which were typically situated on south-facing sides of buildings with tall, large windows.

In the 1200s A.D., ancestors to the Pueblo Native Americans known as the Anasazi built their homes on the south sides of cliffs across Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. These ancient cliff dwellers knew that the sun would help keep them warm during the cold winter months. Even during the late 1700s and 1800s, researchers and scientists used the sun to power ovens for long voyages. Who knew?

The matter of who invented the first solar panel technology is a bit up for debate. Some credit French physicist Edmond Becquerel, who in 1839 determined light could increase electricity generation when two metal electrodes were placed into a conducting solution. This breakthrough, defined as the “photovoltaic effect,” or PV, was influential in later PV developments with the element selenium.

“In 1873, Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium had photoconductive potential, leading to William Grylls Adams’ and Richard Evans Day’s 1876 discovery that selenium creates electricity when exposed to sunlight. A few years later in 1883, Charles Fritts actually produced the first solar cells made from selenium wafers – the reason that some historians credit Fritts with the actual invention of solar cells.” (Information here on the history of solar energy largely comes from news.energysage.com.)

Solar cells today are made with silicon, not selenium. Therefore others consider the true invention of solar panels to be tied to Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson’s invention of the photovoltaic cell at Bell Labs in 1954. Many argue that this event marks the true invention of PV expertise because it was the first instance of solar technology that could power an electric device for several hours of a day. The first ever silicon solar cell could convert sunlight at 4 percent efficiency, less than a quarter of what modern cells are capable of today.

Just a mere four years later, solar technology was used to power satellites. In 1958, the Vanguard I satellite used a tiny one-watt panel to power its radios. Later, that same year, Vanguard II, Explorer III and Sputnik-3 were all launched with PV technology on board.

Today, over two million homes in the U.S. have energy needs supported by solar panels. In fact, the country surpassed the two million mark just three years after hitting one million solar panel installations, which took 40 years to accomplish!           

Lynn Youngblood is the executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City. Reach her at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net.