Although solar power never really became a ‘thing’ until the 1980s, the wheels began turning a full hundred years prior, when in 1883, Charles Fritts created the first functional solar cell. It seemed like sheer sorcery at the time, capable of converting around 1% of sunlight that hit it into electricity. Unfortunately for Fritts, the cell was composed of gold-coated selenium – neither being particularly cheap or easy to come by at the time. Exorbitant production costs and horrendously poor efficiency gave Fritts no choice but to write them off as an interesting (but ultimately worthless) novelty. http://www.energysmart.com.au/
Until 1954, when Daryl Chapin, Calvin Souther Fuller and Gerald Pearson, working at Bell Laboratories, made an interesting discovery: Fritts’ design could be replaced with a diffused silicon p-n junction to create a cell that run at approximately 4-5% efficiency (compared to Fritts’ 1%). Though immensely exciting, it soon became apparent that their cell had absolutely no chance of competing financially with coal fuel (with coal coming at $2-3 per watt as compared to the new solar cell’s $250 per watt).
The cells languished in obscurity for some years, until the suggestion was made to affix them to the sides of the
Vanguard I satellite that was launching in 1958. The cells would allow Vanguard I’s usefulness to be extended
considerably beyond its initial battery powered design, and despite skepticism, they worked precisely as intended. The success spurred a rush of similar designs, with Bell Laboratories’ own satellite, Telstar, foremost among them.
Further development of the cells was crippled by their success as a power source for space-based applications. Efforts to make them more affordable seemed pointless when they were only marketable to those who could already afford their exorbitant price.
For the next ten years or so, the cells didn’t see much improvement. A reduction to their price was finally provided by unrelated breakthroughs in the semiconductor manufacturing process, providing more semiconductor for less money (and more solar cell for less money). By 1971, though, the cells were only down to roughly $100 per watt – still hardly ideal. Solar power was beginning to seem very much like a doomed pet project.
Yes, you read that right – Exxon saved solar power from another hundred years in relative obscurity. Don’t panic! You’re not going insane – money was on their mind. Elliot Berman was, at around the same time, tinkering with a new method to manufacture silicon that would drastically lower costs. He lacked appropriate funding and had given up, but fate smiled on him. By coincidence, Elliot met an Exxon team who were scouting for projects that would be of great use in 30 years’ time (i.e., the 2000s). Foreseeing the dramatic price rise of electricity, they were looking to invest in ways to cut electricity generation costs. The team figured that dropping costs to $20 per watt would trigger a spike in solar power demand. With them funding Berman, he turned his mind away from his extremely time-consuming new manufacturing method and towards the problem of reducing solar cell costs with existing materials.
It turned out that was rather easy once Berman examined the cell schematics. He found enormous amounts of materials were being wasted in the manufacturing process. Not only were the reflective surfaces being attached to material that was already reflective but the cells were being made exclusively with high-grade electronics silicon, despite slightly flawed silicon working perfectly. They began to buy up ‘reject’ silicon, and Berman’s observations, when put into practice, brought costs down to $10 per watt by 1973. SPC (the splinter company formed by Berman and the Exxon team) were soon selling cells like hotcakes at the $20 per watt they hoped for. However, other oil companies had taken notice..
After the 1973 oil crisis, Big Oil had only gotten bigger. Their profits had become gargantuan, but they were beginning to realize that any future profits were going to have to be coming at least partially from other energy sources. So it went that several huge oil companies started solar subdivisions, and became – for decades – the foremost manufacturers of solar cells. Solar technology began to come into its own, progressing at a remarkable rate. Today, costs are down to below $2 per watt and solar energy has established a firm foothold around the world.