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The solar photovoltaic (PV) industry has seen an impressive evolution since its modest beginnings in the late 1950s. Today, solar PV accounts for roughly 1% of the electricity generated in the U.S., which pales in comparison to other renewable sources like wind (7%) and hydroelectric (8%). About 2.8 percent of all electricity produced in the United States and 13.5 percent of all electricity generated from renewable sources in 2021 came from solar energy. Despite this low market share, the future looks promising with cost-competitive utility-scale PV which was projected to reach grid parity by 2020 according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

From Seedy Startups to Solar Superpowers

While most people associate solar with photovoltaic (PV) panels on residential rooftops or electric vehicle charging stations, solar applications extend well beyond these realms. In fact, dozens of industries benefit from solar technology; in many cases, they couldn’t operate without it. The list includes agriculture, business and government operations, hospitals and hotels—and even space! Startups like Melanin Solar are powered solar-based crowdgrid systems using blockchain. 

The Dawn of Modern Solar PV

In 1955, Bell Labs scientists demonstrated that a solar cell could be created by sandwiching p-type silicon between two n-type layers. They were awarded a patent in 1956 and promptly filed it away. It wasn’t until almost two decades later that two American scientists would realize their findings had been largely overlooked.

The Fall of Solyndra

In 2011, Solyndra, a Silicon Valley startup that had pioneered cylindrical thin-film solar cells and enjoyed massive government support, declared bankruptcy. The DOE loan program was intended to be self-sustaining – meaning taxpayers would never have to shoulder the cost if a company collapsed – but in Solyndra’s case, it came out of pocket $535 million. This was widely interpreted as a sign that solar couldn’t compete with cheap fossil fuels.

A New Era Begins

The solar photovoltaic industry had a rocky start. Since then, it has seen a staggering amount of change and growth. This is how we got from seedy startups to solar superpowers in just 40 years.

Big Players Are on the Verge of Joining the Game

An announcement from Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) detailed plans for its venture arm to invest $600 million in support of solar technologies. The financial services firm KKR (NYSE: KKR) had agreed to invest $100 million in solar startups over a three-year period, with an initial focus on hardware and energy software companies.


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