The History of Solar Panels
For the last century and a half, inventors have been working hard to make improvements in the efficiency and aesthetics of solar technology.
Solar energy technology began with a young physicist in France, Edmond Becquerel. In 1839, Becquerel observed and discovered the photovoltaic effect. This is the process that produces a voltage or electric current when exposed to light or radiant energy. A few decades later, French mathematician, Augustin Mouchot, began registered patents for solar-powered engines in the 1860s. All around the world inventors were inspired by the patents and began filing for patents on solar powered devices as early as 1888.
In 1883 New York inventor Charles Fritts created the first solar cell by coating selenium with a thin layer of gold. Fritts reported that the selenium module produced a current that was continuous, constant, and of considerable force. This cell achieved an energy conversion rate of 1 to 2 percent, but most modern solar cells work at an efficiency rate of 15 to 20 percent. While it was only a small amount of energy, this was the beginning of photovoltaic solar innovation in America.
A few years later in 1888, Edward Weston received two patents for solar cells. For these patents, Weston proposed “to transform radiant energy derived from the sun into electrical energy, or through electrical energy into mechanical energy.” Light energy is focused by a lens onto the solar cell. The light heats up the solar cell and causes electrons to be released and current to flow. In this instance, light creates heat, which creates electricity. This is the reverse of the way an incandescent light bulb works, converting electricity to heat that then generates light.
Also in 1888, Russian scientist Aleksandr Stoletov created the first solar cell based on the photoelectric effect. This is when light falls on a material and electrons are released. In 1894, American inventor Melvin Severy received patents for what was basically early solar cells based on the discovery of the photoelectric effect. Severy also received a second patent in 1889 which was also meant for using the suns thermal energy to produce electricity for heat, light, and power.
Almost a decade later, American inventor Harry Reagan received patents for thermal batteries which are used to store and release thermal energy. This battery was invented to collect and store heat by having a large mass that can heat up and release energy. Systems today use this technology to generate electricity by conventional turbines. In 1897, Reagan was granted a patent for an application of solar heat to thermo batteries. His invention was a means of collecting, storing, and distributing solar heat as needed.
In the 1950s, Bell Laboratories realized that semiconducting materials were more efficient than selenium. They created a solar cell that was 6 percent more efficient. While it was considered the first practical device for converting solar energy to electricity, it was still cost prohibitive for most people. Silicon solar cells are expensive to produce, and when you combine multiple cells to create a solar panel, it’s even more expensive for the public to purchase. The University of Delaware is credited with creating one of the first solar buildings, “Solar One,” in 1973. The construction ran on a combination of solar thermal and solar photovoltaic power. The building didn’t use solar panels; instead, solar was integrated into the rooftop.
In the 1970s, an energy crisis in the US began and Congress passed the Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act of 1974. The government was more committed than ever to make solar power a more viable and affordable option for the public. After the debut of “Solar One,” people saw solar energy as an option for their homes. Growth slowed in the 1980s due to the drop in traditional energy prices. But in the next decades, the federal government was more involved with solar energy research and development, creating grants and tax incentives for those who used solar systems. According to Solar Energy Industries Association, solar has had an average annual growth rate of 50 percent in the last 10 years in the United States, largely due to the Solar Investment Tax Credit enacted in 2006. Installing solar is also more affordable now due to installation costs dropping over 70 percent in the last decade.
Australia begins construction on their largest solar project to date.
From pv magazine Australia.
A project boasting 1.5 GW of solar PV and 500 MWh of energy storage broke ground 100 km north of Brisbane on Wednesday, becoming Australia’s largest solar development to enter construction. While no public announcement was made, renewables industry body the Smart Energy Council posted a photo from the ground breaking ceremony today on Twitter.
Not much is known about the developer, Sunshine Energy, as the plant appears to be its first and only project, judging from its website. According to a company extract from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Sunshine Energy Australia was registered in 2017 in Mitchell, in the Australian Capital Territory, with a headquarters in Melbourne. Its principle shareholder is Hong Kong-based Eastern Union Limited, and the bulk of its shares are owned by former director Anthony John Youssef and current director Chi Man Li, both of whom have a residence in Australia.
The massive project was given the green light by Queensland’s Somerset Council in mid November, following a review. The council noted the application had been referred to various government departments and agencies for input.
“This was a complex development application put together by Ethos Urban planning consultants, who have been involved in other large infrastructure projects throughout Australia, on behalf of Sunshine Energy Australia Pty Ltd,” Somerset Mayor Graeme Lehmann said at the time.
The plant is set to sprawl across 2,055 hectares east of Harlin along the D’Aguilar Highway, and be developed in three 500 MW stages. It will connect to the 275 kV high voltage national distribution network in Queensland.
Alongside the 1.5 GW solar farm, the project will feature two substations and a 500 MWh energy storage facility to be added later, putting the estimated cost at around $3.5 billion.
“The site has been largely cleared in the past and is within one hour of the 570 MW pumped storage hydroelectric plant at Splityard Creek, which is also in the Somerset Regional Council area,” Lehmann had previously stated, noting the site was attractive because of its proximity to the high voltage power network and Brisbane.
Grid and economic boost
According to the project website, the solar farm will be able to generate, on average, around 2,259 GWh of green energy per year and supply around 300,000 Queensland households.
The development is being mooted as bringing an economic boost to the region, with the expected creation of 1,000 jobs – on-site and logistically – plus 30-60 permanent positions.
According to Sunshine Energy, the solar farm is expected to require approximately 6-8 months for the initial site preparation and further 16-24 months to complete construction. It could eventually expand to a whopping 2 GW within 36 months, depending on the suitability and size of the land around the site.
This project dwarfs any other PV plant under construction in Australia, such as Innogy’s 349 MWp Limondale Solar Farm and Maoneng’s 255 MWp Sunraysia Solar Farm in New South Wales or Total Eren’s 256.5 MWp Kiamal Solar Farm, in Victoria.
As for the energy storage component, Sunshine Energy’s website refers to a patented solution called SEA-Power (SEAP). It says each SEAP unit consists of 4 MW of lithium-ion battery storage, a battery management system (BMS), fire suppression equipment, thermal management system, switchgear and other components, housed in a 40-foot shipping container. Sunshine Energy says that the SEAP solution can provide a range of grid services, along with “renewable energy smoothing and power quality management.”
With the capacity of 500 MWh, the Sunshine Energy battery will be among the nation’s largest, including the South Australian Tesla big battery (110 MW/129 MWh) at the Hornsdale Power Reserve and the construction-ready 200 MW solar PV+120 MWh battery project that form part of the Solar River Project in South Australia, the size of which could double at a later stage.
Another gigawatt project was waved through in Queensland two years ago, when Singapore-based Equis Energy secured approval to begin constructing the 1 GW Wandoan South Solar Projects.
Meanwhile, Australia’s other GW renewable energy projects are still awaiting a regulatory nod – a 4 GW renewable energy hub for New South Wales proposed by Energy Estate and MirusWind, and the 11 GW Asian Renewable Energy Hub , which is planned to export power to Southeast Asia via subsea cables and supply big miners and green hydrogen projects in the Pilbara region, in northwest WA put forward by a consortium comprising Vestas, Intercontinental Energy, CWP Energy Asia and Macquarie Group.
The debate over developing solar energy projects on public land has proven to be a controversial topic. The article below describes the benefits of solar development on public land.
Solar development on public lands offers many benefits, from reducing the threat of climate change to creating green jobs. Large-scale projects can have serious impacts on the land, so it is important that they are built in the right places and the right ways.
By focusing on development in smart places and off-setting or mitigating the impacts, we can:
- Protect wildlands and sensitive wildlife habitat.
- Facilitate responsible development by taking advantage of nearby existing roads and power lines. This makes development faster, cheaper and better for the environment, solar developers and consumers.
- Restore and repair damaged wildlands and wildlife habitats in areas where renewable energy development is occurring.
The Wilderness Society continues to work in collaboration with:
- Conservation partners at regional and national organizations.
- Solar developers.
- Government agencies, including the BLM and Department of Energy.
- Utilities that manage the power grid and deliver power to consumers.