Solar panel 18.12.14

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President Carter inspecting the White House solar hot water heating system, June 20, 1979

Photovoltaic technology was born during the 1950s space programme and came of age during the 1973 oil crisis. Despite attempts to consign it to history, it remains a symbol of mankind's resourcefulness

The first practical solar cell was created 60 years ago at Bell Telephone Laboratories. The possibility of converting the sun's energy into electricity – the photovoltaic effect – had been discovered by Edmund Becquerel as long ago as 1839, but it needed Bell Labs' expertise in growing pure silicon crystals and turning them into wafers as thin as a razor blade to successfully power a device.

On 26 April 1954, the day after Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller and Daryl Chapin had tested the silicon solar battery on a radio transmitter, the front page of The New York Times declared "the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind's most cherished dreams – the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization". (At this point, the solar cell could turn only six per cent of the sun's energy into electricity.)

The new era began inauspiciously. In October 1955, Bell Labs set up a large-scale test in Americus, Georgia, to power the local telephone system for six months. Pearson called the experiment "a huge technical success, but a financial failure". Chapin calculated in 1956 that it would cost $1.5m to produce enough cells to power his house.

No one could see any real-world application for the inefficient and wildly expensive new technology until the scientific panel in charge of America's space satellite programme realised that a satellite powered by conventional batteries would be able to operate for only a few weeks at a time (Sputnik 1's transmitters had lasted a mere three weeks).

Since the launch of the Vanguard 1 in 1958, all satellites have used solar-power technology. The International Space Station, for instance, gets its winged silhouette from its eight solar panels on each side (a total of 262,400 cells connected by 12.9km of wire).

Back on Earth, it wasn't until early 1970s that efforts to make photovoltaic energy commercially viable became more urgent. There were two reasons for this: in 1972, the US reached "peak oil", since when it has imported more oil than it produces; and the following year, the oil crisis and a temporary 400% rise in gas prices showed oil-importing countries the dangers of being dependent on OPEC.

In the US, the Carter administration set up the Solar Panel Energy Research Institute and, as a symbol of the president's commitment to solar energy, a solar heating system (32 thermal collecting panels) was installed on the White House to produce 75% of its hot water. (Photovoltaic panels to convert energy directly into electricity were considered too ugly.)

In his dedication speech, Jimmy Carter said that by 2000, the US should get 20 per cent of its energy from solar and other renewable forms of energy: "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 just a small part of one of the greatest adventures in our nation's proud history ... I am determined that America will move toward the solar age."

In their documentary A Road Not Taken (2010), the filmmakers Christina Hemauer and Roman Keller tell the story of how in 1986, the 32 collectors were removed from Ronald Reagan's White House. The explanation at the time was that it proved impossible to put them back after roof repairs; Greenpeace said later that the system was designed to allow for building work without needing to be removed at all.

One of the panels is now at the Smithsonian, one at the Carter Library in Atlanta, and another at a museum in China. The Obama administration reinstalled a system of solar thermal and photovoltaic panels on the White House roof in 2010.



Fatema Ahmed


Image: Harvey Georges/Associated Press

quotes story

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 just a small part of one of the greatest adventures in our nation's proud history

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