Solar Energy: An Introduction to Photovoltaics

This is the first article in a six-part series dedicated to renewable energies.

by  Aaron Mandelkorn

Solar energy is not a new concept. For years, civilizations utilized the power of the sun’s rays to warm their homes and dry their food and clothes. Today, we know so much more about what the sun can do. No better example of this is found than in Photovoltaic electricity, or PV for short. This term refers to the electrical current that is generated when light reacts with a solar cell, which is generally made from silicate.

The photovoltaic effect has been studied and experimented with since its discovery in 1839. At first this effect was considered simply a phenomenon with no real practical application. It took over 100 years for the application of photovoltaics to catch up with the technology. In the mid 1950s, AT&T was demonstrating the first solar cells. Although these efforts were far from efficient, this technology spawned interest from a wide array of researchers including the space industry.

Today, nearly sixty years after the first solar cells were introduced, we are seeing a boom in this industry, but this was not always the case. The 1970s and 80s were tough times for the solar industry. America was dealing with more pressing issues and photovoltaic research took a back seat. The technology was considered too expensive and experimental. The focus was on meeting our country’s energy needs through foreign oil. The 1990s brought renewed interest in solar energy. The federal government developed incentives for research and development, and utility companies offered rebates to customers who invested in this technology. This sudden interest has led to dramatic price decreases. Currently prices for solar electric technology are dropping.

One cause of this decrease in cost comes from a renewed interest in solar electric manufacturing technology and companies striving to bring the cost down so PV will be available for the masses. The traditional silicone wafer once took a significant amount of energy to produce. Now PV manufactures are experimenting with different ways to make their product as efficiently and as carbon neutral as possible. Examples of this are ribbon wafers, which allow a module to produce more power without being larger in size, and the use of nano particle ink in which the solar cell is painted on the module. These advancements reduce waste and add great efficiency to the manufacturing process.

Solar electric technology has proven to be an effective way to create electricity for a wide range of applications. With continued support this industry is on the path of changing the way we look at energy.

Originally from South Florida, Aaron Mandelkorn now lives and works in Salida. His business, Renewable Energy Outfitters, provides clean energy systems and consultation to residents of Chaffee County and beyond. Specializing in remote power systems, he has extensive knowledge in solar, wind and micro-hydro system technologies. He can be reached at Stay tuned for the second article next month: Going “Off Grid.”