Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

On Display: Smithsonian Shares the History of Solar

March 1, 2017

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The addition of a record-setting 14.6 gigawatts (GW) of solar energy onto the grid made 2016 a historic year for solar, with a total of more than 42 GW now connected to our country’s electricity infrastructure. With solar’s exponential growth over the past 10 years, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History added a new exhibit highlighting how solar has evolved since scientists began attempting to harness the sun’s power. Solar on the Line explores the innovation and technology behind solar as a renewable energy resource and presents multiple views on the potential benefits and challenges of solar. I was fortunate to have the opportunity of helping the Smithsonian compile a number of the items used in the exhibit.

The Start of Concentrating Solar Power

Some of the earliest uses of solar energy were to generate heat. For example, the exhibit features a solar heating system that was patented in 1880. It uses a movable frame to track the sun and adjustable reflectors to focus light on a small area, generating heat for any purpose. The essential concepts embedded in this basic device have morphed into today’s concentrating solar power technology, also known as CSP, where mirrors reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect the energy as heat. Today, nearly two dozen power plants in the U.S. use CSP to generate electricity for their customers. SunShot funds research and development into new technologies like the falling particle receiver that allow CSP to operate more efficiently.

Calling Photovoltaic Power

Much of the solar technology we see today started with a photovoltaic solar cell that was designed by technologists at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1954. The PV cell was the first to convert more than one percent of sunlight into electricity, which influenced how the majority of commercially produced cells are built today. Bell’s newly-developed solar cells were first used to power telephone equipment in remote locations, but in 1958 they powered the first U.S. satellite and by 1962, they were used to cover NASA’s Telstar 1 satellite for expanding our communications infrastructure. Today, silicon solar cells have evolved to a level in which mass production lines are able to consistently produce cells averaging 25% efficiency. SunShot funding programs like Photovoltaic Research and Development have helped speed these advances.

Durability of PV Panels

One of my favorite parts of the exhibit is the test panel from the Mariner VI satellite that lets museum visitors use their smart phone flashlight to make the circuit generate power. The panel itself is not new – it was fabricated in 1960 to test cells intended for use on spacecraft sent to other planets. Half a century later, the panel can still produce electricity with the same efficiency as when it was initially assembled, which shows just how durable a PV panel, which has no moving parts, can be. It’s an especially popular attraction for children visiting the museum—and one that can pique their interest in solar energy careers. Job opportunities in solar continue to grow at a rapid rate: more than 260,000 people working in the solar industry today, creating nearly 1,000 new, high-paying jobs every week.

The Solar on the Line exhibit shows just how much solar has changed and grown over the years. SunShot has played an integral part in solar’s exponential growth over the past six years and is poised to continue contributing to its progress. Learn more about SunShot’s goals for 2030.