History Of The Sun! Well, Of Solar Energy, Anyway

sun and cityscape illustration

The sun.

At one time and in many cultures, the sun was worshipped as a god; Ra, Apollo, Helios, Awondo, Tonatiuh have all been names for the sun in a divine sense.

In Norse legend, the sun is not a god, but a goddess – Sunna. In Hindu mythology and in ancient Chinese mythology, there are multiple sun gods and goddesses. I mean, bringing light and heat to the world is a pretty big job, after all.

In this age of science and enlightenment, we know that the sun is a burning ball of gas that’s about four and a half billion years old, which is middle-age as far as stars go. But, you can understand why sun worship was a thing at one time. The sun is a thing of wonder, like a miracle. It captures our imaginations and our respect.

Whatever the belief around the sun happens to be apart from that, this fact remains. The sun is the reason why I can write this sentence. It is the reason that you can read it. Basically, the sun is the reason there is life for everything that lives now and has ever lived on this planet. Side by side with water, the sun is essential to our continued survival as living things on the earth.

So, what has been our relation to the sun when it comes to the development of civilization? How has it enabled us not only to live in the most essential manner, but also to innovate in the way that we warm our homes, and power our lives? Well, that’s a worthy question! Let’s explore it here.

Solar energy is the oldest form of energy in the world

Solar energy and its use seems like a new-fangled idea. It evokes visions of gleaming solar panels and complicated technology that miraculously converts the life-giving rays of the sun into energy we can use to fire up our laptops, warm our water, heat our homes, or even power a spacecraft making its way into the far reaches of space. All of that is true, of course. Those are important aspects of how solar power is used, and how we interpret its use for high-tech projects and usages in the future.

But, using solar energy is actually a well-traveled path that was used in the ancient world as well as the modern one. A lot of this was simply down to necessity. History doesn’t go back this far. But, I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that the presence of sun as a flaming ball in the sky might have had something to do with the discovery of fire by pre-historic peoples, along with lightning hitting trees, and swamp gases igniting. But, besides that, it was around solar energy that many civilizations planned the layouts of their homes and communities once recorded history did begin.


In Greco-Roman times, Apollo (or Helios in the Greek) rode a flaming chariot over the world, tracing the path of the sun from dawn until dusk. From the beginning, the power of the sun was recognized by humanity, even if the exact nature of that power wasn’t really understood.

Principles of early solar passive design

From the earliest years of Western civilization, exposure to sunlight and subsequent heat from the sun determined where a home would be built, because the environment was immutable, and building and construction processes and decisions weren’t. It’s pretty simple when you think about it, right? Back then, there were no sophisticated HVAC systems to make up the difference, as is the case today, other than by wood fires that is. In absence of that kind of sophisticated heating technology, the sun really did rule, which may be another reason it was thought of as being divine.

This means that buildings and homes had to be energy efficient and use what the sun provided. It wasn’t a nice to have. It was best practice. This is more and more the case in the 21st century too, of course, as passive design enjoys resurgence as a term and as a set of practices from the planning stages to the construction states. It still makes as much sense now as it did in Ancient Greece, Pharaonic Egypt, Native American societies in North America, and other ancient civilizations.

Early examples of applied solar energy

So how did they organize their buildings and living spaces according to passive design? Well, that’s the thing about this approach; it never gets old. Even in the ancient world, the idea of comfort was paramount. Just as they do today, south-facing buildings kept everyone cool in the summertime and maximized exposure to the sun’s rays in wintertime. Even the renowned philosopher and one-time drinker of hemlock tea, Socrates himself, weighed in on the wisdom of this!

He said:

“Dude! You’d have to be a total goofball to not build according to passive design!”

Well, it was words to that effect anyway. Actually, it was more like this (but in Greek, of course):

“Is it not pleasant to have the house cool in summer and warm in winter? … Now in houses with a southern orientation, the sun’s rays penetrate into the porticoes [covered porches,] but in summer the path of the sun is right over our heads and above the roof, so we have shade…. To put it succinctly, the house in which the owner can find a pleasant retreat in all seasons … is at once the most useful and the most beautiful.”

Aesthetics and practicality, then; they were guiding principles to advanced ancient civilizations, and even those who we wouldn’t consider to be advanced. And in reference to Socrates remarks on the subject, you can see how the influence of Ancient Greek philosophy endures today.

Socrates_by_Leonidas_Drosis,_Athens_-_Academy_of_Athens-corte - Copy

A statue of Socrates (469 – 399 BC), who was an advocate (or maybe just a fan) of passive solar design.  He was also the inventor of the Socratic method. When someone tells you to “think it through”, that’s what they’re referring to. So, given those facts, passive solar design really does just make sense! (image: Eugenio Hansen, OFS)

These were the things which led in the design of some of the greatest buildings and cities the world has ever seen. The celebrated Greek and Roman “portico”, which are a series of thick and evenly spaces pillars on many buildings in cities, was an architectural means of letting sunlight filter through buildings for the benefit of light and heat.


The Ancient Egyptian sun god Ra – who balanced a flaming ball on his head, which is that of a falcon. Talk about solar innovation! (image: Jeff Dahl)

But building placement and design wasn’t the only strategy for using the sun to heat and brighten up spaces in the Ancient World. For extra heat, sun rooms were built so that access to warm sunshine was easy. There were even “sun laws” in place to make sure that every citizen had access to the sun. This is a good example to cite when addressing the issues of city living and city planning today, with skyscrapers growing higher and higher, often resulting in people being cast in the shadows of buildings.

Other examples of applied solar power principles

The Ancient Egyptians collected solar energy through the use of black pools of water, or presumably black tile-lined pools by day. And by night they would run the heated water into heating pipes of palaces and houses by night. There is even evidence of Romans experimenting with mirrors and solar energy, using it for heat, but also (incredibly!) for weaponry against enemy ships made of wood, and susceptible to concentrated sun’s rays. Needless to say, the worship of the sun had a practical application, too.

Unfortunately, the passive design approach when it came to building was lost when the great empires fell, along with (equally unfortunately) the knowledge of transport and processing of fresh water in cities. In reference to Native American peoples, an awful lot of wisdom when it came to solar and environmental practices were lost for a lot of other reasons that had to do with cultural (and at one point, actual) genocide. That’s a whole story by itself, and not a very pleasant one.

But like that ancient technology, it would take some time before we’d get it back in the next thousand years and change. But, we would get there, through the development of earthships, and other home designs that incorporate the sun’s position in the sky into their layout. Socrates would have breathed a sigh of relief.


The Mesa Verde cliff palace found in the four corners region of the United States was designed and built by the Pueblo peoples for optimum solar energy conditions for both warmth and for keeping cool in high summer. (image: Lorax )

This is the great thing about passive design; that its principles don’t get old, even when humanity loses its way down through the ages. They just get re-discovered and re-interpreted. Many modern architects are turning to passive design in the planning of truly 21st century buildings, all with the ideas of comfort and energy efficiency at the heart of their designs. Sometimes the oldest ideas are the best ones, even in an age where technology has allowed us to jump by leaps and bounds when it comes to solar energy. Speaking of which …

Solar collection

I’ve already mentioned how the Ancient Egyptians used pools of water and black tiles to heat up water and use it for heating in general. But, there’s a time when passive needs to become active. When it comes to actual early solar collector theory and apparatus, what were some of the innovations in more modern times that furthered the development of solar power?

One of the key problems for energy innovators to solve when it came to solar power was how to collect that energy and then use it later. Passive design just makes sense in terms of exposure and maximizing the effects of the sun while it’s still daytime. But, at night, you have a whole different problem when it comes to light and heat. So, the idea to find a means to “collect” the heat of the sun and translate it into electricity through some form of apparatus, was an important next step in the history of solar power.

The photovoltaic effect and solar cells


Alexandre Edmond Becquerel (1820 – 1891), a French physicist who tested and observed the photovoltaic effect, which is the operating principle of the solar cell – at age 19! (Lithograph by Pierre Petit (1832-1885), printed by Charles Jeremie Fuhr )

The discovery of what is known as “the photovoltaic effect” was a key game-changer in the history of solar energy. It occurred in 1839 by French physicist Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel after which the annual Becquerel prize for photovoltaics is named.

Simply put, this phenomenon concerns the creation of an electrical charge as the result of exposure to light through the excitation of electrons using metal like selenium or platinum as a conductor. That’s a lot of science, of course. To read more of the details of the actual process, here’s a great article from NASA (a key benefactor of solar energy) that explains the process of the photovoltaic effect in more detail.

This principle of photovoltaic phenomenon was the building block on which the idea of solar panels were based, often called “photovoltaics” today. The development of “solar cells” meant that energy could be stored as well as generated by way of the photovoltaic effect.

Connected scientific disciplines

With the photovoltaic effect established as an important principle in turning light into energy, it makes sense that the solar panel would be the next step in the timeline of solar energy in general. A big part of the design had to do with surface area to capture the most light possible to maximize the efficiency of the cells. The challenge even over the last few decades is how to make their construction more lightweight and easy to manage while also increasing the conversion rate from light to energy. At the time, it was mostly a case of bringing the theory and the application together.


The humble silicon solar cell; a long history in the making.

By the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, the study of light, metallurgy, and the manufacturing and patenting of solar cells have a parallel history. In the history of solar energy, and really in any scientific field of study, it is the interconnected disciplines that yield the most fruitful results.

Testing the theories

Also, and I think this is very important, the photovoltaic effect was tested and re-tested all the way along. That’s the great part about science; it constantly asks the same questions to determine the best possible answer. It challenges the established theories so as to confirm the same conclusions, or to change those conclusions when new information becomes available (I resisted “brought to light”, so I hope you appreciate that …).

These are complex webs of information and theory we’re dealing with here. And that’s the kind of approach what we benefit from today when it comes to modern technology that is at work to this very day.

A timeline of solar panels

With all that in mind, here’s a selected timeline of the solar cell:

1888-91 – Aleksandr Stoletov creates the first solar cell based on the photoelectric effect

1905 – Albert Einstein publishes a paper explaining the photoelectric effect on a quantum basis.

1920s – Solar water-heating systems, using “flat collectors” (or “flat-plate collectors”), come into use in Florida and in California.

1950s – Bell Labs produce solar cells for space technology, including satellites.

1962 – The Telstar communications satellite is powered by solar cells.

1973 – Skylab is powered by solar cells.

1979 – Jimmy Carter’s White House features solar panels on its roof

1980 – Ronald Reagan’s White House doesn’t, because he took them down, citing that “more research is needed.” ’nuff said.

1991 –  U.S. Department of Energy to establishes the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (a government funded body),which includes the development of solar power.

2004 – California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (it’s still weird to think of him as a governor …) proposed Solar Roofs Initiative for one million solar roofs in California by 2017.

2013 – After three years, the solar panels ordered by President Barack Obama were installed on the White House, Jimmy Carter style!

2014 – Record-breaking solar cell efficiency beats the 25% mark – 25.6% light to energy ratio

2015 – China doubles its goal for solar power capacity by year-end, and more than doubles its goal for 2020

As you can tell, it’s not just technology that drives the history of solar energy. A big part of that story has to do with cultural values and expectations of society and its prevailing biases. This is true of any kind of history, of course. We’re still seeing those kinds of forces affecting the conversation around solar energy and other kinds of renewable energy today.

When on a certain course, sometimes it can be a tough job weighing other options, just because we’ve been staring through the same lenses for so long. Wow. That’s a lot of mixed metaphors! But the point is this. When it comes to keeping warm and out of the dark while still being able to breathe, we’ve got to be willing to change our thinking and our approach.

Solar power role models

So when it comes to changing the game on how to clean up our global energy programs, what kinds of projects and sets of policies are driving the conversation as far as mainstream acceptance of solar energy as an option to be reckoned with on a national and global scale? Well, here are some selected examples, or role models if you will.

Germany – by 2014, Germany produced enough solar and other renewable energy to power 31% of its grid. That’s significant. Germany is a big industrialized economic power not generally known for its sunny days (although, it has them), making an attempt to ween itself off of foreign fossil fuels. This is not unlike many regions in North America, of course.

And it’s not as if Germany is that much further ahead in terms of output. Currently, America produces more energy via solar than Germany. But, in terms of overall percentages relative to total output, the Germans are the ones to watch.


Krughütte Solar Park in Germany, constructed on the site of a former copper mine in Saxony-Anhalt. (image: Parabel GmbH)

Denmark – An ambitious goal of 200 megawatts of solar power was set in Denmark to be attained by 2020. They made that by 2012. This is due to the implementation of what’s called “Net Metering”, which allows individual households to store energy from the surplus of the public grid. This innovation drove up the demand for solar panels. And voila! When you empower the average household, good things happen.

Barbados – One of my familial homes (my Dad is Barbadian, or “Bajan”), Barbados also shifted its economy toward solar energy by the 21st century. Specifically, this meant rooftop solar and solar water heaters. In 2002, they saved themselves 15 000 tons of carbon emissions and $100 million US in savings, creating a new renewable energy economic sector in the Caribbean in general.

Maybe a shift to solar energy makes more sense in Barbados given that the island makes its living from the sun in another sense, that being the tourist industry. But, the idea that a very small country is empowered by solar technology also points to another important goal for the 21st century; a more equitable world with a level economic playing field where small countries don’t have to buy energy from larger ones.

The United Kingdom – Coal mining was a major industry in the UK in the 20th century. There is a brutal history you can learn about how that industry was dismantled abruptly in the 1980s in favor of privatized energy programs (and to crush the unions). You’ve seen Billy Elliott by now, right?

But, in the 21st century, there are projects being undertaken to shift the old “pits” into solar collection centers. This is an investment into clean energy, sure. But, it also represents something else, which is a new green economic sector, which puts people to work in areas like the Midlands and the north of England where widespread unemployment was once a plague.

The United States – That’s right! Despite all of this hoo-haa about Canadian oil and Keystone pipelines, solar energy has taken off in the US, growing the market significantly by 48% in 2o12. This has meant that the cost of residential solar systems have come down in price, putting the power (pun intended?) into the hands of individual households.

And like the shift toward solar energy and other renewables, the economy has benefited as well with the creation of (once again) a new job sector which has grown exponentially even a year afterward, and in all fifty states.

Why doesn’t every home run on solar power?

This is the zillion-dollar question, isn’t it? And another one is this: why is there so much doubt around the viability of solar energy as a key strategy in an era where lowering carbon emissions is a must-have, connected to our very survival as a species?

rooftop solar panels lowrise buildings residential

Part of it has to do with the front-loaded cost of solar systems for residences, currently. At one point, the cost of these to the average homeowner was prohibitive to say the least. Yet in recent years the cost of solar systems have been coming down more and more.

Right now, the expense of this is still shouldered by the individual household, including the cost of solar panels and water heaters, and the central systems to manage them. Perhaps in the near future, development firms for residences will include solar systems as a value-add to stay competitive in an increasingly unstable housing market, with the promise to the buyer of future energy savings.

How do you meter the sun?

In addition to all of that, I think part of the answer is this, personally:

No one can “own” the sun.

You can take oil or coal or natural gas out of the ground on a piece of land that you have ownership over, and it’s yours to do with as you please. You can sell it to the highest bidder and charge a fee according to the market value of that resource. You can’t do that with the sun. How do you meter sunlight, and say “the sunshine that beams down over Anytown USA and the surrounding area belongs to me. That’ll be two-hundred bucks a month, please.”? That would be absurd. Yet this is what makes renewable energy a political issue, why certain politicians seem so obtuse when it comes to the support (or non-support) of renewable energy.

The biggest market force there is

As far as this idea of metering the sun goes, I think one of the big challenges to shifting to a renewable grid is this. When it comes to evolving economies and infrastructure to support it, those who are currently making money also have to be making it later when the dust settles.  If there’s no way to do that, then new innovations that are in place to affect that change are very often hampered by those established interests, and outright opposed even if those changes make sense. It’s a question of economic momentum, and often it’s about plain old greed.

I think resistance to this kind of change is natural enough. No one wants to lose money. But, as so many of these same interested parties who will resist renewables will say, the way that economies turn is all down to market forces. Yet, our need to live in a world where there is clean air and water for everyone in a safe environment is going to be the biggest market force there is sooner or later.

The future of solar energy

We’ve established that since even before civilization began, we’ve had a relationship with solar energy. It is the reason that there is life on this planet, after all. But, even in the earliest periods of recorded history, gearing the design of buildings, and in apparatuses (however crude) to diffuse and collect the warmth of the sun for use as heating and taken into account for cooling was a priority.

So what needs to happen in the 21st century for solar energy, and other renewables too, to move even further into the mainstream, and allow us to reduce and remove forms of energy that are not sustainable? Well, the science needs to evolve as it has done all the way along so that new theories can be developed on how to maximize the yield when it comes to photovoltaics. With that, manufacturing of solar energy products needs to be streamlined, made accessible, and made to be more normative rather than notable as features on buildings, new and old.

Homeowners and solar energy

I think there needs to be buy-in from governments, private industry, and academia, as well as cooperation between the same on how to make clean energy via the sun an every day thing, a given, something to be accepted and even bored with. Many of the boring things in our lives are those things that keep us alive and happy.  And I think that a strong business model around solar energy and other renewables needs to be fashioned by those who are unafraid of the future, and who are not tied to old ways of doing things.

All of this seems like a tall order. But, despite the debates when it comes to things like climate change, job creation around green infrastructure, and sustainable economies in general, at least one thing is not debatable; that we want our children to have it easier than we’ve had it. We don’t want to have them inherit an earth that has been run into the ground. We want them to be safe and warm, and ready to craft their part of the grand story of the human race, and be illuminated by the same sun that allowed generations to thrive before them.

Who can’t get behind that?


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