Solar energy is crucial to many futures. On the micro level, there’s a booming solar industry in America and across the globe. Since Congress passed a tax credit in 2006, the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) says that the industry has been averaging an annual growth rate of 50 percent in the last decade. In most fields, that would be macro news. But solar energy has a mission beyond making money—it’s supposed to save the planet.
There’s no plan to prevent man-made global warming from permanently warping the Earth’s climate without solar panels and the energy they can convert. “The role of renewable energy solutions in mitigating climate change is proven,” says the United Nations Development Program. Some in the industry think that solar will grow 6,500 percent as an industry by 2050 in order to mitigate that need.
But for all their importance, solar panels still feel mysterious. Stiff and slightly menacing black rectangles, they have neither the look or the feel of a savior. Majestic waterfalls and dams look heroic, but solar panels do not. So…how do they work anyway?
A Brief History
Work in solar energy started in 1839, when a young French physicist named Edmond Becquerel discovered what is now known as the photovoltaic effect. Becquerel was working in the family business—his father, Antoine Becquerel, was a well-known French scientist who was increasingly interested in electricity. Edmond was interested in how light functioned, and when he was just 19 their two interests met—he discovered that electricity could be produced through sunlight.