Your Time in the Sun: A Brief History of Solar Power

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UPS does more than just pack and ship your precious goods. The popular logistics company has announced plans to continue with their commitment to sustainability and using alternative energy by investing nearly $18 million dollars in solar power across eight of their facilities in the United States. But why is such a move making headlines. More importantly, what can you do to take advantage of the same perks UPS now enjoys?

Solar energy is much more convenient than you might think. Compared to other, non-renewable sources, solar energy can be harvested wherever sunlight is while producing no waste at all. Solar energy It is also the preferred method of creating electricity for short-term events, like the Olympics, because of its easy setup and teardown — something you can’t do with an oil derrick or coal mine. And from a long-term consumer standpoint, an incredible one million solar energy systems have already been installed in the United States, and that number is growing. 

But while sustainability and green technology seem to be terms grounded in the 21st century, harnessing the power of the sun has been around longer than you’d think.


The Photovoltaic Effect: A Shocking Idea

The history of sunlight being used as energy began as far back as 1839 when the photovoltaic effect was first discovered. In short, the photovoltaic effect is when light energy is absorbed by a material which then produces an electric voltage. In 1883, Charles Fritts created the first solar cell using this principle. This single cell, constructed by coating selenium with a very thin layer of gold, generated an energy conversion rate of 1-2%. Nowadays, modern solar cells offer a much more efficient 15-20% conversion rate.

While the creation of the first solar cell was groundbreaking in 1883, just five years later in 1887 German physicist Heinrich Hertz observed the photoelectric effect. This effect uses a solid metallic surface to extract electrons from light to create power. Hertz had thought that direct light would produce a better outcome, but his process actually produced more energy when exposed to ultraviolet light. A few decades later, Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize for further explaining the effect.

In 1956, the first solar cells became available commercially. However, the cost was astronomical; $300 for a one-watt cell limited the technology to the wealthy. Fast forward to 1970, and the price dropped significantly from $100 per watt to $20 per watt. Understandably, as the technology’s price fell, more people and businesses had access to it, in turn sparking further interest and investment which propelled solar power innovation further.


Modern Solar Implementation

By 2015, India opened the very first solar-powered airportThe solar farm that powers it takes up 45 acres of land, and is responsible for 50,000 to 60,000 units of electricity per day. It is estimated the airport will save 300,000 tons of carbon emissions during its use.

That same year, printable solar panels hit the market for consumer use. These low-profile panels could be printed with an industrial printer and produce up to 50 watts per square meter (or a little over one square yard) with a single strip. It might not seem like a lot, but imagine investing $18 million like UPS. 

“Solar technology is a proven way to effectively and efficiently provide long-term power to our facilities,” UPS’ Director of Facilities Procurement, Bill Moir, said in a press release when the upgrades were announced last year. “We have a significant number of facilities that are well positioned to deploy solar at scale and increase our sustainable energy options for our buildings and electric vehicles.”

The company purchased 26,000 panels and outfitted eight of its buildings as a small test, bringing up their power reliance to 50% on the sun and solar-power-generating capacity to almost 10 megawatts. That’s enough energy to provide electricity to about 1,200 homes for a year!

But what if you’re not a logistics powerhouse like UPS with millions of dollars to throw around?


Practical Installation

The great thing about solar power — and the pursuit of technological innovation — is that it’s continually evolving. We have come far since 1839, and it doesn’t look like the momentum will slow down anytime soon. A few years ago, the University of Illinois in Chicago developed a photosynthetic cell that, instead of merely harvesting solar energy and storing it in a battery, it produces a hydrocarbon fuel called syngas, combining carbon dioxide and hydrogen with sunlight. One big issue with solar energy panels and related technologies, however, has been affordability. But due to recent advances in technology as well as its increased popularity, the price of solar energy production is declining by about 10% each year. Harnessing solar energy requires more than just panels though; you must be able to store and convert the energy before it can power your home.

First, you will need batteries to store the harnessed electricity. Without them, you could have all the solar panels in the world but still not be able to turn on the lights at night; panels harvest, batteries store energy to later be used. Think of it kind of like a well: the hole, water, and crank are all good to have, but without a bucket to hold onto the water, it’s pretty much useless. In addition to the panels and batteries, you’ll need a controller to protect the battery cells by regulating the flow of electricity and an inverter to convert the stored energy to the voltage used to power your home.

But before you start searching for the best prices for inverters, you should examine your home to see if solar is the right fit for you. A few things to consider are location, energy usage, and local laws and regulations. For instance, do you live in sunny Florida or the notoriously rainy Pacific Northwest? Does your roofing need work? Are you surrounded by shady trees that may block direct sunlight? You certainly don’t have to live in a vibrant, sunny place to capitalize on solar energy, but you’ll get better results from panels with direct exposure to the sun throughout the day. Most importantly, make sure to double check that your neighborhood allows solar energy installation. This is especially necessary if you live in an area that sets certain restrictions on its residents. Make sure to contact your Home Ownership Association to avoid any hiccups along the way.

If all this checks out, and you want to take the plunge, you will receive some impressive benefits. Besides lowering your energy costs over time by lessening your reliance on utility companies in favor of harvesting your own electricity, homes with solar energy systems are eligible for state or federal investment tax credits and increased property value. Whether you’re looking to keep your home or retrofit and sell a fixer-upper for a profit, there are plenty of financial incentives to motivate you if sustainability isn’t a key selling point for you — though still important nonetheless.

The incredible future of solar power is bright (pun intended). With companies like UPS continuing their efforts in improving the environment and the significant advances in solar technology, it will become more accessible and affordable for everyone. According to a study done at MIT, “Solar electricity generation is one of very few low-carbon energy technologies with the potential to grow to very large scale.” As you can see from its history and present-day improvements, this clean energy is not going anywhere but up.


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