Celebrating The 60th Anniversary Of The First Practical Solar Cell — From Powering Ferris Wheels To Cities, & Beyond

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By John Perlin, author of Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy.

bell_ferriswheelPhoto’s courtesy of AT&T archive.

Sixty years ago on April 25, 1954, Bell Laboratories demonstrated to the world one of the most significant breakthroughs ever recorded in the history of solar energy and of electricity – the first solar cell capable of converting enough sunlight into electricity to generate useful amounts of power. The press watched in awe as light poured on the first watt of silicon to run a 21 inch Ferris wheel. The next day the New York Times stated on its front page that the Bell invention marked “the beginning of a new era, eventually leading 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 the time of the Bell announcement, all the solar cells in the world delivered about one watt. Today, more than 100 billion watts of generating capacity of photovoltaics have been installed worldwide. This year not only marks the 60th anniversary of the solar cell, but also the beginning of reaching the Holy Grail that had previously been only a dream of solar scientists – entering the Era of Grid Parity, when solar panels generate power at costs equal to or less than electricity produced by fossil and nuclear fuels. With the phenomenal growth of solar technology in the last several years and its future looking even brighter, the time is ripe to celebrate the founding of a technology that led Science magazine almost forty years ago to declare, “If there is a dream solar technology, it is photovoltaics ­­­solar cells … a space­age electronic marvel at once the most sophisticated solar technology and the simplest, most environmentally benign source of electricity yet conceived.”

On April 18, 2014, a formal celebration will take place in Palo Alto, CA to mark the milestone of 60 years of practical PV. Palo Alto is becoming a living demonstration that we’ve come a long way since that first Ferris wheel was lit up by solar technology in 1954, and that in fact, whole cities can be powered by solar and other renewables. The City of Palo Alto recently started covering its entire community’s power demand through renewable purchases and credits and is on track to procure 100% renewable power by 2017. Solar is expected to make up 18% of that portfolio.

The anniversary celebration, called PV60 – History Becoming the Future, will pay tribute to two of the most significant pioneers who are still with us from the dawn of the solar era, Dr. Morton Prince and Eugene Ralph. Prince witnessed the moment when Gerald Pearson put a piece of doped silicon in sunlight and recorded an efficiency six times greater than found in earlier solar cells. Pearson’s discovery initiated Bell Laboratories’ development of the first practical solar cell. Prince participated in the year­long project and built the first arrays for public demonstration. He went on to a long career in solar PV, which included heading the U.S. photovoltaics program under President Carter.

Eugene Ralph, working under Prince’s oversight, designed and constructed the solar cells that went on the Vanguard satellite, the first commercial photovoltaic application. Its success made solar cells a required device for the ever­growing space program, establishing a relatively large market for photovoltaics, which was the salvation of the fledgling solar cell industry. Ralph later helped found Spectrolab, which remains active in the manufacturing of solar modules for space and concentrated PV applications.

I will have the privilege of moderating a conversation with these two luminary scientists at the anniversary event, which will also feature a display of archival materials, including original 1954 Bell modules, a collection of photos and films, and formerly classified documents that literally shed light on the story of solar PV’s first 60 years and much of which is included in my book, Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy. Please come. Everyone is welcome to join us!

PV60 – History Becoming the Future is being organized by the non-profit Renewables 100 Policy Institute and co-sponsored by the City of Palo Alto on April 18, 2014, 7 PM, at the Lucie Stern Community Center.

Full disclosure: Full-price ticket purchases come with a signed copy of my book, Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy. For more information, please visit www.pv60.org.

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