April 25--The modern solar cell celebrates its 60th birthday Friday.
And only now is it coming into its own.
On April 25, 1954, researchers from Bell Laboratories astonished reporters by hooking a hand-size silicon panel to a toy Ferris wheel, aiming a light at the contraption and making the wheel turn.
Scientists had observed the ability of some materials to generate electricity from light as far back as 1839. At first, they didn't understand how the process worked. Well into the 20th century, they struggled to find practical ways to harness it. The Bell Labs demonstration, hailed by newspapers as the dawn of a new era, changed that.
And yet for decades, solar power's high price limited its use to satellites and a handful of other applications. Interest in the technology swelled after the oil shocks of the 1970s, only to evaporate once petroleum prices fell.
But in the last 10 years, the number of solar panels installed around the world has soared. A thriving solar industry has taken root in the Bay Area, despite the high-profile bankruptcy of Solyndra. Large solar power plants -- some using solar cells, others using mirrors to concentrate light -- have sprouted across California and the desert Southwest.
Part of the growth is driven by the fight against global warming, part by solar power's plunging price. Expanding production has slashed the price of solar modules from roughly $286 per watt in 1954 to less than $1 today.
Still, solar remains a tiny slice of the world's energy pie. According to the Department of Energy, less than 1 percent of all the electricity generated in the United States last year came from solar power, compared with 4 percent from wind, 19 percent from nuclear and 39 percent from coal.
But 60 years after Bell Labs, it appears dawn has finally arrived for the technology.
Solar Cell Timeline
-- April 25, 1954 -- Bell Labs introduces the modern silicon solar cell by powering a miniature Ferris wheel. The New York Times proclaims "the beginning of a new era, eventually leading to the realization of one of mankind's most cherished dreams." The cost, estimated at $286 per watt, limits interest.
-- March 17, 1958 -- Vanguard 1 becomes the first solar-powered satellite. Vanguard continues transmitting data for six years.
-- April 23, 1967 -- The Soviet Union's Soyuz 1 becomes the first manned spacecraft with solar panels. One set of panels, however, fails to unfold in orbit. Officials cut the mission short due to mechanical problems.
-- June 20, 1979 -- Amid oil price shocks, President Jimmy Carter installs a solar water-heating system on the White House roof. "A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people," he says.
-- Dec. 20, 1984 -- Solar Energy Generating System I, a large-scale solar power plant that can provide enough electricity for 10,000 homes, opens in California's Mojave Desert. By 1990, eight similar stations would be built nearby. The stations, which use parabolic mirrors to concentrate sunlight, remain in operation.
-- 1986 -- President Ronald Reagan quietly removes the White House solar system. Government and public interest in renewable power wanes, as oil prices fall.
-- 2000 -- To fight global warming, Germany adopts aggressive new "feed-in tariffs" that offer renewable power producers guaranteed prices for electricity they feed onto the electricity grid. The tariffs quickly transform Germany into the world's largest solar market. By 2010, Germany will have 43 percent of the world's solar generating capacity, while the United States will have 6 percent. -- Sept. 12, 2002 -- California Gov. Gray Davis signs a law requiring utilities to increase the use of renewable power at least 1 percent each year until they reach 20 percent. The standard is revamped in 2006 and 2011, with its current version requiring 33 percent renewable power by 2020. The law spurs construction of solar power plants in California, and 28 other states soon adopt their own standards.
-- Aug. 2004 -- California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes installing solar arrays on 1 million homes by 2017. As part of his Million Solar Roofs effort, the state in 2007 begins offering $2.4 billion in solar installation rebates, attracting solar companies and helping California become the nation's largest market for solar panels.
-- June 2007 -- Sunrun in San Francisco starts offering homeowners the option of buying the electricity from rooftop solar arrays, while the company owns the panels themselves. Quickly adopted by other companies, including SolarCity in San Mateo, the idea soon dominates the residential solar market.
-- March 20, 2009 -- Faced with a deep recession, President Obama makes renewable power a focus of his economic stimulus plan. Fremont's Solyndra, a startup making tube-shaped solar panels, wins the government's first clean-energy loan, worth up to $535 million, to build a new Bay Area factory.
-- 2010 -- China's banks pump an estimated $32.6 billion into the nation's solar companies during the year, funding the construction of new factories that flood the global market with solar modules. Module prices, around $2.46 per watt in 2009, start to plunge.
-- Aug. 31, 2011 -- Solyndra closes its new factory and announces it will file for bankruptcy, igniting a political firestorm. Other American solar manufacturers close facilities or shift more production overseas, trying to compete with China's low-cost cells. Module prices drop to $1.53 a watt.
-- Dec. 13, 2012 -- SolarCity of San Mateo holds a successful initial public offering, as falling prices and solar leases make the technology more attractive to homeowners and businesses.
-- December 2013 -- The amount of solar electricity generated annually in the United States grows 663 percent in three years. But it remains less than 1 percent of all electricity generated in the country during 2013.
-- Feb. 13, 2014 -- The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the world's largest solar power plant of its kind, opens in the Mojave Desert. The $2.2 billion project -- which received $1.6 billion in federal stimulus and a $168 million investment from Google -- uses mirrors to focus sunlight on centralized towers.
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