People have worshiped the sun and channeled its energy for various uses since early civilization. Ancient Greeks designed their homes to face south to capture more of the sun’s warmth and light in the winter. This use of “passive solar energy” is an old technology still used today. The ancient Romans added more windows with glass panes to the south side of homes, allowing more heat and light into buildings. The Romans were also the first to use greenhouses to grow plants and seeds, and Greeks and Romans were among the first to use mirrors to reflect the sun’s heat to light fires.
Artists and scientists have experimented with solar energy throughout the centuries. In the 1500s, Leonardo da Vinci envisioned harnessing the sun by collecting it into a central receiver, and in 1515 he built a rough collector, according to a history of solar energy on the Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA) Web site. In 1767, Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure built the world’s first working solar collector. Later, in 1890, French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, the physical process through which a photovoltaic cell converts sunlight into electricity.
In 1954, the U.S. company Bell Labs developed the first solar photovoltaic device that produced a useful amount of electricity. In 1956, architect Frank Bridgers used photovoltaic technology to design the Bridgers-Paxton building, the world’s first commercial office building featuring solar water heating and passive design. Interest in solar energy started to grow. In 1958, the SEIA reported that, “solar cells were being used in small-scale scientific and commercial applications, including the space program.”
The U.S. government increased research on renewable energy sources, including solar power, after the energy crisis of the 1970s. It was cost-prohibitive at the time to use solar power on a large scale, but photovoltaic cells began to be used in remote applications, especially in the telecommunications industry. The first solar electric generation station plants were built in California’s Mojave Desert from 1984 through 1990, and they are still in operation today.
Costs to develop solar power technologies have decreased in recent years. The U.S. government's focus on solar energy varies depending upon the state of the economy and the administration. Generally, state and federal government policies encourage the growth of the industry as a means to help the United States gain energy independence from foreign countries and create energy technologies that are more environmentally friendly.
In 2015, solar energy comprised 5 percent of all renewable energy in the United States, an increase from 2 percent in 2012, according to the Energy Information Administration. Its potential as a major energy source is largely untapped.
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