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A History of Solar Energy

When it comes to living on Nantucket, history is at the forefront of our day-to-day lives. The town itself is basically one, big historical landmark. It's the admiration of our heritage that keeps us focused on the future; procuring this place for all generations to come.

It may come as a surprise to know that solar energy itself has quite a storied history. Despite the technological involvement that makes it seem like a modern concept, the origins of solar energy date back to the late 19th century when the first solar water heating systems were introduced. In the 1950s and 1960s, the US government began investing in solar energy research and development. In the 1970s, due to the energy crisis, interest in solar energy increased, leading to tax incentives and increased funding for research and development. In the following decades, advances in technology and declining costs led to growth in the residential and commercial solar energy market.

Today, the US is a leading producer of solar energy, with over 100 gigawatts of installed capacity, and a continued focus on expanding the use of renewable energy. In order to fully understand our capacity for growth, it's important that we take a look at our past. The history of solar energy and its expansion is a roadmap for what we can only hope to be a reputable solution for the climate crisis facing our planet, and our island, today.


It was a decade of futuristic fascination, with “modern living” and the concept of life on the moon deeply rooting itself into American culture. It comes as no surprise then that this decade saw the origins of the US government beginning to invest in solar energy research and development as part of the broader effort to promote scientific advancement and address energy needs. This period saw the first large-scale installations of solar-powered devices, such as water heaters and space heaters, and the development of new technologies for harnessing the sun's energy. Despite this early investment in solar energy, the widespread use of fossil fuels and the relative low cost of energy at the time limited the growth of the solar industry during this period.


As the decade transitioned from sock hops and drive in’s to a time of rebellion and conflict, solar energy continued to gain traction in the United States as part of the larger effort to find alternative energy sources. During this decade, there was increased investment in research and development of solar technologies, and the first commercial solar cell was introduced. However, the use of solar energy was still limited during this period, as fossil fuels remained the dominant source of energy and the cost of solar technology was high compared to other energy sources. Nevertheless, the 1960s set the tone for the future growth of the American solar energy industry, perhaps a byproduct of a decade that saw people challenging the status quo.


The 1970s marked a turning point for the solar energy industry in the United States, as the energy crisis and the increasing cost of traditional energy sources fueled a renewed interest in alternative energy. In response, the US government introduced tax incentives and subsidies for the development and deployment of solar energy systems, and continued to invest in research and development. This led to significant growth in the industry, with the number of solar energy installations increasing and the development of new and more efficient technologies. Despite these efforts, the use of solar energy still accounted for a small fraction of overall energy production in the US, as the cost of solar technology remained high and the infrastructure for widespread deployment was still underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the 1970s were a decade of positive growth of the American solar energy industry.


During this decade, advances in technology led to more efficient and cost-effective solar panels, making the use of solar energy more accessible to a wider range of consumers in a way that hadn’t existed previously. The US government continued to provide tax incentives and subsidies for the deployment of solar systems, and several states introduced renewable energy mandates, which required utilities to generate a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. Despite these efforts, the use of solar energy remained limited, as an acceptance into daily lives and home usage was minimal. All this considered, the 1980s marked an important period in the development of the American solar energy industry, and teed up the next decade for even further advancements.


Contrary to the growth and development of the 1980s, the 1990s saw a slowdown in the growth of solar energy. Declining oil prices and the end of government incentives continued to make the cost of solar technology high. However, advances in technology and continued commercial investment in research and development helped to keep the industry afloat. During this decade, several states continued to introduce renewable energy mandates, and the first large-scale solar power plants were built in the US. The 1990s also saw the formation of the first large-scale solar energy companies, which helped to increase the visibility and mainstream adoption of solar technology. Solar was beginning to integrate within standard American society, helping to make the 90s an important period for the advancement of solar.


The new millennium arrived and the conversation surrounding solar energy seemed to take off in a way never seen before. Beginning first with a concept initially introduced in the 1980s but only widely adopted in the 2000s, net metering allowed homeowners with solar panels to receive credit for excess electricity that they generated and sent back to the grid. Several states began to revise and expand their net metering policies at the start of the new century in response to the growing popularity of solar energy. Today, net metering is considered a key policy tool for promoting the growth of renewable energy. At the same time, residential inverters started to become widely available. An inverter converts DC (Director Current) electricity from solar panels or batteries into AC (Alternating Current) electricity that is used to power household appliances. The inverter also detects when the grid goes down and automatically shuts down - an important safety feature for utility grid operators. As more states began to offer incentives for solar installations, the use of inverters as a household appliance began to steadily grow. Just like net metering, today's inverters are a key component of most residential solar use, and are often integrated with other smart home technologies to help homeowners monitor and manage their energy use.

The first Presidential race of the new century brought one of solar energy’s most passionate supporters, Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States and environmental activist, to the forefront of conversation. A vocal advocate for solar energy and other renewable energy sources for many years, Gore highlighted the urgency of addressing climate change and the importance of transitioning to cleaner forms of energy. He helped start conversations among American society for a need for solar energy, and was compounded by the founding of Tesla Motors in 2003. Created with the goal of accelerating the transition to sustainable energy, the company's first car, an all-electric sports car called the Tesla Roadster, was introduced in 2008. Since its founding, Tesla has also been a pioneer in developing charging infrastructure for electric vehicles and continued the development of all-electric vehicles that have established themselves as a part of the routine American lifestyle.


The 2010s saw a dramatic expansion of the solar energy industry in the United States, driven by a combination of factors including declining costs of technology, increased government support, and a growing awareness of the benefits of renewable energy. After years of slowly integrating into American culture, the accessibility coupled with the growing understanding of the effects of climate change, caused the number of solar installations to grow rapidly. Large-scale solar power plants were flying up across the country and the installation of rooftop solar systems became increasingly common in both residential and commercial settings. The cost of solar technology also declined significantly, making it more accessible to a wider range of consumers. By the end of the decade, solar energy accounted for a significant fraction of the overall energy mix in the US, and the industry continued to grow and evolve.

2020's and beyond...

The future of solar energy in the United States looks bright - no pun intended. A testament to the ever-improving accessibility of solar, looking for renewable energy options is becoming as synonymous with home ownership as choosing a paint color for your front door. The development of new technologies such as advanced storage solutions and the integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning into solar systems is leading us into the future. And whether or not it looks anything like the Jetson’s would’ve had our 1950’s solar enthusiasts expecting is something that is left to be seen.

With all this history and promise of the future spelled out so plainly, we can't help but wonder about how to boil it down for our own relevance. What does this mean for our tiny island thirty miles out to sea?

Well, with the continued advancement of technology, the collaboration of our communities, and a collective agreement that we live in an incredible place that deserves to be preserved for as many future generations as we can imagine, the sky is truly the limit.

Or should we say, the sun.

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