Go Solar Now: 140 Years After Invention
By Morgan Pierce
Updated September 20, 2023
To mark Earth Day, the Irish Times asked 55 of the nation’s most influential “changemakers and influencers” to comment on the things that gave them the greatest hope for the planet’s future. Environment Minister Eamon Ryan declared that 2023 is the year for “rapid roll-out of solar power”. Somewhat to our surprise, it sounds like he really does want to balance Ireland’s previous “wind only” renewable energy policy by throwing his ministry’s weight behind solar. The time to go solar is now. It took 140 years, but we are getting there.
Yes, you read that right. The first Solar PV panels – the most important component of the home and business generating systems we use today – were created back in 1883 by a New York inventor named Charles Fritts.
Fritts had read about work done in France by a young physicist, Edmond Becquerel. When doing experiments involving a particular form of cell, Becquerel noted that the voltage of the cell increased when its silver plates were exposed to sunlight. The process by which by which electric current is produced when exposed to light or radiant energy came to be known as the photovoltaic effect.
After further research had established the exceptional photosensitivity of the element selenium, Fritts started experimenting with it to create the first solar cell. He pressed a selenium film between a thin layer of gold and a brass plate and placed them in a glass box. As sunlight shone through the glass, a significant electric current was produced. Most important, Fritts noted that his invention produced a current that was “continuous, constant, and of considerable force.”
Fritts was so excited by his invention that he sent a number of them off to the renowned German engineer and industrialist Werner von Siemens. Fritts’ invention for the direct conversion of light into electricity hugely impressed the visionary entrepreneur. Fritts’ work, Siemens said, was “scientifically of the most far-reaching importance.”
So, you are probably asking, why has it taken 140 years to begin to fully exploit the potential of solar energy?
The answer is “Thomas Edison”. Edison – the man behind the phonograph, the telegraph, and the electric lightbulb – was one of the most influential inventors of all time with more than 1,000 patents to his name. At the time Fritts was making his first break-throughs with solar energy, Edison had just built the world’s first electric power plant – and it was powered by coal. Sadly for Fritts – and disastrously for the earth’s climate – Edison’s coal-fired power plant was able to generate electricity much more efficiently than he was then able to do with his basic solar cell technology.
Now, though, that has all changed.
In modern solar panels – like those we use at SolarSmart – silicon has replaced gold and selenium. By 2022, technological advances had dramatically improved the efficiency of these silicon-based photovoltaic panels.
Every day now, solar technology improves. Every day, the manufacturing of solar panels, batteries, and other equipment needed to install this powerful, green, energy alternative, becomes more affordable.
The Minister is right, 2023 really has been the year for a massive rollout of solar power across the country. And we expect a lot more in 2024 and beyond.
And that is something to be cheerful about.
Investing in solar PV systems can bring many benefits, including reduced energy bills, increased energy independence, and a reduced carbon footprint. If you are interested in installing a solar PV system, it is worth exploring the different grant options available and seeking professional advice from one of our solar energy advisors.
Feel free to contact us for more information, we’re here to help.