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The first solar battery, designed by Charles Fritts

Solar panels, have been available commercially for over 40 years. The first solar cell however, was created long before by Charles Fritts in 1883. By coating selenium (a semiconductor material) in a thin layer of gold, Fritts was able to conduct a small amount of electricity from the sun. How small? With less then 1% energy efficiency, this early panel design was incapable of even charging a modern cellphone.

Inventor of the solar cell, Charles Fritts

For the next 60 years, this newly discovered technology would make little progress, despite the efforts of scientists. Some of the less notable stops in the solar journey, include the semiconductor-junction solar cell developed by Wilhelm Hallwachs in 1904. Using copper and copper oxide, Hallwachs was able to develop a solar cell, but it was plagued by low inefficiencies similar to Fritts’ design.

The fruit of the aptly named team “Sunshine” at Bell Labs

It wasn’t until 1954, that the first Crystaline Silicone cell debuted, with the ability to power electrical devices. Researchers, Gerald Pearson, Daryl Chapin and Calvin Fuller, worked together at Bell Laboratories to tackle the problems of inefficiency. Using the new, but soon standard, silicone to capture the sun’s energy proved to be much more effective. With 6% efficiency, the panel easily eclipsed previous iterations. Not without it’s problems, the cell was extremely expensive at around $1000/watt.

Price per watt continues to decline

To say today’s solar technology is brighter, is something of an understatement. Today’s PV panels have efficiencies of up to  21%, and cost around $5.00/watt, including installation. Without even accounting for inflation or the increased efficiency, the panels we see on our neighbors roofs cost less then a single percentage point when put head-to-head with the first generation of silicone PV cells.

A look at the guts of a photovoltaic cell

The future? With manufacturers continuing to shave cents off the cost per watt, we can expect to see big things, literally. Even though residential solar installations grew 53% over a 9 month period, the biggest increase is happening within utility companies. Energy giants like ConEdison, have been building large scale solar implements for years and if this graph is any indication, it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

And why exactly do we need to burn coal?