The Solar Cell Turns 60: Celebrating History and the Future

“It was the solar cell that launched the renewable energy age,” declared Eicke Weber, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, as he kicked off “PV60: History Becoming the Future.” The program, honoring the history of the invention of the silicon solar cell, took place April 18 at the Lucie Stern Community Center in the solar-friendly city of Palo Alto and was organized by the nonprofit Renewables 100 Policy Institute. The audience, primarily composed of industry professionals and researchers, laughed and smiled along with stories told by solar pioneers Morton Prince, coinventor of the commercial solar cell, and Eugene Ralph, developer of the first space and terrestrial applications of the solar cell.

Mort Prince displays the original Bell solar battery
Mort Prince displays the original Bell solar battery

Prince shared the “Eureka” moment with the audience, a testament to being in the right place at the right time. Colleague Gerald Pearson had run out into the hallway as Prince was passing by and stopped him to share the news. Fuller had just witnessed that the silicon-based transistor produced a current when exposed to sunlight. Where solar cell experiments had used selenium up until that time, the Bell Labs team had serendipitously found a cheaper alternative. “Everything happens in the hallways,” Prince reminisced with a smile.

For Ralph, the future could not come fast enough. His papers from the 1950s and onward heralded a solar future that is just beginning to unfold as costs have decreased tremendously over the past 15 years: residential solar rolls out on a massive scale, utility-scale solar projects sprout up, and other new markets take off. Although he was honored to be among the solar pioneers, Ralph humbly gave recognition to where the technology and industry were heading, remarking, “It was a team effort, but now it’s an army.”

I spoke with Ralph after the program. He shared his grand vision for the solar applications of the future, where massive solar power stations in space send clean, renewable power down to Earth unencumbered by soiling, ambient temperature, distributed generation policies, and the host of other terrestrial design concerns.

Ralph had hoped to see this transformation sooner, but his predictions only missed the mark by a decade or so. He bemoaned the fact, noting that during the Nixon administration, he predicted cost-effective solar-powered independence would be possible through government support by the year 2000. He and other attendees and speakers shared the common theme of how policy has driven the development of solar industry since the very beginning, starting with how the government funded Atoms for Peace handsomely while “Solar for Peace” received a mere pittance.

Ralph delivered words of wisdom; truly, the solar industry continues to be a prisoner of policy issues as the question of whether the ITC will remain unchanged, be altered, or be eliminated entirely hangs in the balance. Even with the advances in manufacturing processes and material science, policy still holds solar back from its true potential to, as the evening’s moderator John Perlin (solar historian and author of Let it Shine: The 6000-Year History of Solar Energy)eloquently put it, “safely put the nuclear reactor 93 million miles away.”

Contrasting the solar generation formed by the discovery of the solar cell and the space race to the solar industry pros of today reveals a narrative running in the same vein: a desire to do something memorable and amazing to better the world. After the program, Prince advised the young up-and-coming entrants to the solar field to “do something good for the planet” in their career.

We are perilously close to losing track of the oral history of the solar industry and the perspective of the policy battles and regulatory hurdles we have jumped over to get this far. Perlin has spent countless hours reviewing archives in the United States, Germany, China and elsewhere to put together his exhaustive book on the history of applied solar energy. The connection between the history and stories is not common to the context of the post-net-metering solar industry–a world often defined by finance terms and economic models.

Solar must not lose the essential connection to its soul: a product with more potential for powering a society peacefully than any other extractive fuel source. Although the mechanisms and tools provided through finance and economics have helped propel solar into its current arc of success, the desire of the young generations to engage in careers with positive social impact will ensure solar remains one of the planet’s best energy options for the future.