In our last series, we explored the first wave of solar energy expansion. We took a ride with the first solar powered cars, satellites, planes and more.

We also saw the very first ideas of using solar energy for home use.

Wondering what came next?

How did solar energy become such a huge player in the energy market today?

Let’s explore the explosion of the solar industry in the last 20 years and some of the most exciting milestones.

history of solar power
Source: IHS Markit

The Explosion of Solar

Last time we learned that in 1973 the first ever house to use solar energy was built, appropriately named Solar One.

From Solar One to a current cumulative amount of 629 GW of solar power installed throughout the world, solar did a nice job of elbowing its way into the energy market.

But this didn’t just happen one day with the technology of the 70’s. First, solar cell technology had to get better, faster, and cheaper.

Which is exactly what happened thanks to ongoing research on solar technology and pioneers in the field that made it all a reality.

Powered-up Solar Cell Technology

One of the most exciting advancements after Solar One was the continued advancement of solar cell technology.

This gave way to new solar products and improved efficiency on existing solar panel technology.

Here is a brief outline of the milestones in solar cell efficiency. (3)

Read: What is solar cell efficiency?

solar cell efficiency timeline

Enter Building Integrated Solar (BIPV)

With all this advancement in solar cell technology, new methods and products arose to help incorporate solar right into the structure of a building.

This came to be known as Building Integrated Photovoltaics, or BIPV.

And they didn’t stop with construction materials, they also started figuring out how to put solar cells into curtain walls, roof tiles and railings.

Not only can BIPV produce electricity, but it can also provide sun protection, thermal insulation, noise protection or safety. (2)


University of Georgetown Makes History with BIPV

In 1984 the University of Georgetown made its solar mark when it powered up the largest rooftop solar array in the world at the time.

It was meant to demonstrate how solar technologies could be used in place of regular building materials.

They installed 4,464 solar panels on the roof of the Intercultural Center that could produce 300 kilowatts of electricity and operated for almost 30 years.

In 2015, the Voice reported that from July 2009 to June 2010, the panels had produced only 164,300 kilowatt-hours of electricity since they were installed. (1)

Solar Gets Noticed in High Places

All this solar technology started catching the eyes of people in power by the 21st century.

Here is a brief timeline of how solar made its way into high places.

  • 1979: US President Jimmy Carter was the very first to have 32 solar panels installed on the White House during the oil embargo. They were removed during the following administration.
  • 2003: US President George Bush has a 9 kW PV system and a solar thermal systems installed on grounds keeping building at the White House.
  • 2004: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed “Solar Roofs Initiative” for one million solar roofs in California by 2017.
  • 2006: California Public Utilities Commission approved the California Solar Initiative (CSI), a comprehensive $2.8 billion program that provides incentives toward solar development over 11 years.
  • 2007: The Vatican announced that in order to conserve Earth’s resources they would be installing solar panels on some buildings, in “a comprehensive energy project”.
  • 2010: US President Barack Obama orders installation of additional solar panels and a solar water heater at the White House.
growth of solar
Source: Wikipedia

The Expansion of Solar Energy Throughout the World

The United States was leading the solar charge between 1954 and 1996, but then in 1997 that all changed.

From 1997 until 2004 Japan had the most installed solar capacity.

Germany took the lead from 2005 to 2014 and in 2015 China took over as the world leader of solar energy output, and still is today.

Here’s a timeline of the history of solar output throughout the years. (7)

  • 1977: The world production of photovoltaic cells exceeded 500 kW
  • 1982: Worldwide photovoltaic production exceeds 9.3 megawatts.
  • 1983: Worldwide photovoltaic production exceeds 21.3 megawatts, with sales of more than $250 million.
  • 1999: Cumulative worldwide installed photovoltaic capacity reaches 1000 megawatts.

Where are we at now?

As of 2020, the world now has 583.5 GW of operational solar. 

The world installed 176 GW of new renewable energy capacity in 2019 alone, according to the latest statistics published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). (8)

Record-Breaking Solar Power Installations

disney solar farm

As solar continued to expand, solar power plant installations started popping up everywhere.

Solar power plants are massive installations of solar panels in a land cleared out for the purpose of generating the most amount of solar power as possible.

This power can be used on a city-wide scale or even for entire theme parks, as in the case of DisneyWorld.

As of January 2020, these are the top ten largest solar installations in the world. (5)

  1. Tengger Desert Solar Park, China – 1,547MW
  2. Sweihan Photovoltaic Independent Power Project, UAE – 1,177MW
  3. Yanchi Ningxia Solar Park, China – 1,000MW
  4. Datong Solar Power Top Runner Base, China – 1,070MW
  5. Kurnool Ultra Mega Solar Park, India – 1,000MW
  6. Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, China – 850MW
  7. Enel Villanueva PV Plant, Mexico – 828MW
  8. Kamuthi Solar Power Station, India – 648MW
  9. Solar Star Projects, US – 579MW
  10. Topaz Solar Farm / Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, US – 550MW

Solar Plus Agriculture Equals a Winning Combo

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

With the explosion of solar energy in the last 15 years, we are running into a new dilemma: where to put all those panels for massive solar installations?

Solar panels need just the right environment to produce the most amount of power possible. Something else that needs just the right conditions to flourish are crops.

So, why not blend the two?

Introducing Agrivoltaics

In 1981 someone had the bright idea to combine farmland with solar energy. This was coined: agrivoltaics.

The technique originally conceived by Adolf Goetzberger and Armin Zastrow in 1981 (6), didn’t take off until 2004 when the first prototypes were finally built.

And now people are dreaming up all kinds of things to grow alongside solar energy production.

…And even sheep and chicken!

The best news: the crops and animals are thriving under these solar panels. They provide much needed shade throughout the hottest parts of the days. It’s a win-win for everyone!

From Solar Power History to Solar Power Future

It’s hard to tell exactly how much solar will grow in the future since it continues to grow more and more every decade.

solar power future
Source: BloombergNEF

But with the decline of non-renewable sources and the advancement of solar technology that makes it affordable to switch to green energy, the future is bright.

But here is what experts are predicting for the solar industry beyond 2020.

  • The price of photovoltaic power will be competitive with traditional sources of electricity within 10 years.
  • Solar electricity will be used to electrolyze water, producing hydrogen for fuel cells for transportation and buildings.
  • Photovoltaics research and development will continue intense interest in new materials, cell designs, and novel approaches to solar material and product development. It is a future where the clothes you wear and your mode of transportation can produce power that is clean and safe
  • All buildings will be built to combine energy-efficient design and construction practices and renewable energy technologies for a net-zero energy building. In effect, the building will conserve enough and produce its own energy supply to create a new generation of cost-effective buildings that have zero net annual need for non-renewable energy.
  • Other thin-film technologies that are still in an early stage of ongoing research or with limited commercial availability are often classified as emerging or third generation photovoltaic cells and include organic, and dye-sensitized, as well as quantum dot, copper zinc tin sulfide, nanocrystal, micromorph, and perovskite solar cells.

There is even some research being done about how we could switch to renewables 100% by 2050. The research comes from Stanford University.

The report included a roadmap for the world’s energy sector. Scientists are sure that Green Energy jump of 139 countries will not only decrease negative impact on the environment, but also significantly reduce the cost of energy production and create millions of new jobs. (9)

growth of solar industry jobs

Other exciting future solar products:

The future for solar energy is really exciting with the development of products like solar skins, solar paint, and solar fabrics.

Read more about the future of solar energy.

That’s it for our learning series on the history (and future) of solar energy. We hoped you enjoyed this blast through the past, and stay tuned for future learning series blogs!

In case you missed it, here is the entire series: