The Surprising History of Solar Energy – and where the future could take us

flywheel energy storage solutions

There’s a good reason that the sun has been universally revered in legends and folklore all over the globe – it’s one of the most powerful sources of energy we have access to. This knowledge was not lost on our ancestors, who often built large temples and altars to sun deities and even found ways to use the sun’s energy for their ever-growing cities.

Although the words’ solar energy’ may primarily conjure up images of large solar panels attached to homes and office buildings, a contemporary invention as a reaction to the depletion of fossil fuels, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Though the modern solar panel was indeed invented more recently, in the late 1800s, the idea of using the sun to power our cities has been around since ancient times. Many of the world’s earliest civilizations invented unique ways to utilize the sun’s energy and even store it for later use.

In ancient Egypt, known for the all-powerful sun god Ra, temples and households would be built with the sun’s position in mind, specifically using materials and architectural styles to trap the sun’s heat and release it during the cool desert nights. This form of passive solar energy use is still practiced today in many parts of the world, allowing for comfortable living spaces without using air conditioning or heating. In ancient Greece, famous scholars like Socrates touted the benefits of solar architecture and urban planning. Soon, many Greek cities were built with this in mind, and all homes and buildings had large south-facing windows that warmed homes throughout cold winters. Ancient Rome, too, took notice and began implementing south-facing windows in all its bathhouses to keep the water boiling throughout the day, even without firewood.

However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that active solar energy could be harnessed. When French mathematician and scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839, this discovery spurred the invention of solar energy cells. Still, it wasn’t until 1883 when the first solar panel was constructed above a city building by a New York inventor named Charles Fritts. Fritts’ solar cell had a much lower conversion rate of solar to electrical energy, but the concept was solid, and soon, solar energy took off. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, inventors from Spain to France to the United States began submitting patents for all types of solar cells. Finally, in the 1950s, Bell Laboratories created the first silicon solar panel and ushered in the era of the modern solar panel.

Now, solar energy is far more ubiquitous in the energy market, but there are still a few challenges to its implementation – namely, storage of excess energy. While chemical batteries are the traditional method of storing all sorts of energy, including renewable energy, batteries themselves are environmentally harmful devices. With scarce earth metals, risk of corrosion and decay, and short lifespan, chemical batteries come with their own environmental challenges. That’s where kinetic energy storage solutions come in – the flywheel.

The flywheel is a device that stores a primary source of energy, like light energy from the sun. Amber Kinetics, the global leader in flywheel energy storage solutions, hopes to work in tandem with the solar energy industry and other renewable energy industries to efficiently and safely create sustainably-powered cities.