California’s History with Solar Energy

California has been one of the leaders in the discovery and use of solar energy since the 1970’s. Its climate combined with its exposure to natural resources made it a perfect place to develop and test different forms of renewable energy. Renewable energy refers to any source of energy that can naturally replenish itself without the help of human intervention. Over the last few decades, things like hydroelectricity, wind turbines, and thermal energy have become more accessible than ever before. All of this was prompted by the recognition of widespread pollution being caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and fears relating to climate change. Many of those fears have been realized as temperatures all over the world consistently rise year after year. Every new season sees record setting highs and lows that are slowly making certain areas of the world dangerous to inhabit. Our current energy is generated by burning organic materials mined from the earth. These materials will eventually run out, and release harmful emissions into the atmosphere. These emissions have worked to raise the temperature of the planet—leading to serious implications for the environment.

This led to finding an alternative source of energy that is both renewable and safe had become a priority for scientists all over the world. In the year 1876, William Grylls Adams was the first to discover that selenium could create an electrical charge at 1-2% efficiency when exposed to sunlight. In the year 1954, scientists at Bell Laboratories patented and began marketing the first solar cells for commercial use. These were still only functioning at around 2%, and didn’t make the first real advances until around the year 1960. In the year 1978, the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) made it possible for renewable energy to be sold via private energy companies.

Solar panels in San Luis Obispo have come a long way since those pioneering days. At the same time that PURPA was being enacted, Congress also began to offer subsidies and tax credits for those who used renewable energy sources in their homes and businesses. This led to a higher demand for things like solar power, prompting a manufacturing boom in California. By the year 1979, the largest photovoltaic plant in the state had produced a record setting number of solar units.

In the year 1981, Solar One pioneered the first real large-scale thermal power plant in California. This utilized 1818 mirrors that could focus the thermal energy, and use it to power a generator that could send power to the surrounding area. This is a concept that’s carried over to some of our more modern power plants. The heat collected was used to heat oil, which in turn heated water—turning turbines, and creating power on a large scale.

By the year 1986, the Solar One plant had shut down—giving way to a bigger and more efficient solar thermal power plant located in the Mojave Desert. This plant was eventually sold, but continued to provide power well-over twenty years later. The 90’s saw the production of several new solar power plants that operated on a smaller scale.

In the year 1996, the government created even more laws that allowed more solar companies to market their products to the public. This made the industry more competitive, and worked to start creating more and more affordable systems. By the 21st century, new grants and government incentives had made the use of solar energy more appealing than ever before both environmentally and financially.

With the growing and noticeable effects of global warming and growing costs of utilities, solar energy has become more popular than ever. What started out as a potentially experimental source of power has become the goal for every home in America as of date!