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Solar panels: Episode 5 of Setapp’s original Ahead of Its Time Podcast

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16 min read

Welcome to the fifth episode of Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. 

Solar panels can turn on the lights in some of the poorest households on planet Earth. How did the world come up with this ingenious idea of converting solar power into electricity? Let’s hear the story of Calvin Fuller, the man who invented the first silicon solar cell. 

You’ll also hear Bob Freling explaining how solar power can do much more than just electrify rural villages. Through his story, he takes us to the African country of Benin where solar power is successfully used to fight drought and increase food security.

Show notes: 

Transcript: 

Julia Furlan (00:04):

From this moment right now, till the time I finish this sentence, enough of the sun's energy will shine on the Earth to power all of humanity's needs for one full day. In just one hour, the Earth catches enough solar energy to power the world for a year. Isn't that wild? For thousands of years, people have dreamed of harnessing the sun's power. Today, with the drive towards carbon neutral energy and with rapid advances in technology, that dream is burning brighter than ever.

Bob Freling (00:39):

Yeah. I remember sending emails to colleagues and friends from around the world saying, "You'll never believe where I'm writing this email from."

Julia Furlan (00:49):

That's Bob Freling. He's executive director of the Solar Electric Light Fund, also known as SELF.

Bob Freling (00:56):

I'm in deep, deep, deep in the Amazon rainforest and I am writing this email ANGs to solar powered internet satellite connectivity. It was pretty exciting.

Julia Furlan (01:09):

Bob and SELF are leveraging solar, or photovoltaic technology, to help transform lives.

Bob Freling (01:15):

Why solar energy? It represents a solution to many of the problems that plague us now, whether it be water or food security, healthcare. Or just making life better for some of the poorest people in the world.

Julia Furlan (01:32):

Bob and SELF use solar technology to bring electricity to people in developing countries who can't access the electrical grid. These solar panels do a lot of things to make life easier for folks in these rural communities. But the biggest benefit is something less tangible than powering hospital operating rooms or school computers. It's something that's a bit harder to see. Turning on the lights provides a shift in mindset. It gives people hope. Bob's story goes beyond the technical evolution of solar power. It's about creative ways that solar can be used to address longstanding problems like economic hardship, access to information and the spread of disease. These are things that the first solar pioneers likely never imagined.

Bob Freling (02:17):

So we've known about the photovoltaic effect since the 1800s, but it wasn't until I believe 1954, when Bell Labs demonstrated the first commercially viable use of the solar cell. If you talk to Robert Fuller, he'll tell you about the history of solar and this was a technology that was literally a space age technology.

Julia Furlan (02:46):

I'm Julia Furlan and this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp, a show about the tech underdogs no one realized would shape the future. Setapp's versatile app subscription service empowers you to step into a new era of productivity.

Julia Furlan (03:05):

A growing number of people, many of them scientists, entrepreneurs, and inventors, believe that the solution to the Earth's energy problem is right above us, a mere 90 some million miles away. The solar panels you've come to know, those black glassy squares angled on rooftops and in fields, have become a familiar site, but what's less familiar is the story of one man who helped invent that technology.

Robert Fuller (03:31):

It was shortly after his death in 1994 going through his things that we discovered this memoir.

Julia Furlan (03:40):

That's Robert Fuller. He's reminiscing about his father Calvin who helped invent the first silicon solar cell.

Robert Fuller (03:47):

The memoir was just two or 300 pages of typed manuscript in his desk drawer that we found after he died, and he had written in it in the very beginning, "This is never to be published." When I read it, realized the story here was much more than just the technical side and we had to get it out. So the book is called The Making of a Scientist, and it is quite a story because of the connection between his family life and his scientific life.

Julia Furlan (04:22):

Calvin Fuller was of a different generation, one that didn't air their family's secrets or its dirty laundry. But the story of that first modern solar cell felt too important to keep secret. His unpublished memoir provided insight into Calvin's childhood in gangland Chicago, his knack for invention and, at times, an early pension for mischief.

Robert Fuller (04:45):

He had an uncle who was almost the same age as he was. But the uncle was a fix it guy, a experimenter, a chemistry nut. My father learned a great deal from his uncle and they were always mixing chemicals, making explosions and dazzling his friends with these explosions. They used them to set off charges that would scare crows nesting in a tree or otherwise is wreak havoc on the neighborhood.

Julia Furlan (05:27):

But the memoir revealed darker stories too and much of the family's trouble centered on Calvin's father.

Robert Fuller (05:35):

He suffered from alcoholism and growing up my dad had to deal with a very serious disfunction in his family in which he was called upon to protect his mother from her husband, where he had to subdue his own father, who was in a drunken rage. My father never spoke of this. We only found out about this after he had died and left a manuscript. I'm thinking how that would've affected him as a scientist. He never lacked for purpose and I think one of his purposes was to get out of that family and to move on, and education was a way to do it.

Julia Furlan (06:22):

Fortunately for Calvin, one of his teachers saw his potential and offered to tutor him for a competitive physics exam organized by the university of Chicago. Calvin spent months and many late nights studying, on the day of the exam. Calvin, along with hundreds of other hopeful students from across the Midwest, sat down to take the test.

Robert Fuller (06:42):

He scored apparently first on this competitive exam and was admitted with a scholarship, which today would be in the tens of thousands, but then was perhaps $400 for a year, and it changed his whole life.

Julia Furlan (07:01):

In 1929, Calvin finished his PhD in physical chemistry. The next year he landed a job at Bell Labs, a famous research and development company responsible for some of the 20th century's biggest technological breakthroughs. Within a few years, Calvin was balancing family life with his considerable workload at Bell. Then came trips to his father's lab, which for young Robert was a place of wonder.

Robert Fuller (07:25):

My dad would take me and my brothers to the labs to see what was going on and probably to imprint upon us the prestige of being a scientist there. They had people there developing digital coding before anywhere else in the country. They had people there, neighbors of mine, actually, working on transistors technology and developing the transistor. Then later my father developed the solar cell. So there was a steady stream of world changing inventions coming out of this major laboratory in New Jersey.

Julia Furlan (08:06):

In 1953, Bell Labs was tackling a new challenge. They needed to develop a source of power for telephone systems in remote humid locations where dry cell batteries had a shorter life. They considered solar power, but existing technology could only convert 1% of light into electrical current. Meanwhile, Calvin Fuller and his colleagues were experimenting with a different element for use as a semiconductor; silicon.

Robert Fuller (08:35):

Now, silicon is everywhere in the world, but it's usually in the form of sand. So the beaches are full of silicon, but you can't get at it because it's bonded to oxygen. How can you get rid of the oxygen? Well, my dad figured out how to do that and came up with a way of purifying silicon so you had a pure lump of it. Then you diffuse into that silicon, an element like boron, and those are the key to creating something that generates a current when exposed to light.

Julia Furlan (09:08):

This was a huge breakthrough. Purified silicon allowed Calvin and his colleagues to create a solar cell that could convert 6% of light into electricity. Robert will never forget the night in 1954 when his father showed him something he'd brought home from work.

Robert Fuller (09:25):

He brought home a little windmill and it was attached by two wires to something that looked like a 25 cent piece, a quarter. The windmill just stood there on the dining room table until he shined a flashlight on this thing that looked like a quarter and suddenly the blades of the windmill spun and he pointed out that the light from the flashlight was doing something to create a current that flowed out of this quarter, we now call it a solar cell, and drove the windmill.

Julia Furlan (10:03):

Calvin and two other Bell scientists (Daryl Chapin and Gerald Pearson) named the invention the Bell Solar Battery. It marked a huge advance in the efficiency of photovoltaics and the world took notice. In April, 1954, a front page article in the New York Times announced the discovery as ...

Speaker 4 (10:22):

The beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind's most cherished dreams, the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.

Julia Furlan (10:34):

The technology's potential captured imaginations. Calvin's work even inspired Robert to become a physicist. But as inspiring as the technology was, there was a problem, and that was finding the right application for it.

Robert Fuller (10:49):

It seemed like magic that you could convert light to electricity, but no one saw it as economically advantageous to do that for a while. I think my father, he might have, but he was hard pressed to, as was Bell Labs itself, to put the technology immediately into use. I mean, all they could think of was to replace typical batteries, but initially there was talk of using it to power phone systems in rural Georgia and rural America, where there was no electrical infrastructure.

Julia Furlan (11:28):

For telephone systems, the expense of raw material, technology and electrical storage made solar power less practical than conventional power sources. So Bell Labs shifted its gaze upward, to space. In 1962, Bell launched the first telecommunication satellite to orbit Earth; the Telstar. It was powered by 3,600 solar cells and would transmit the first trans-Atlantic TV feed. Soon, the search was on to find other applications for solar power.

Robert Fuller (12:02):

The one place I remember it being used that was funny but really telltale was a photograph we had of a camel walking across the Sahara Desert that had a bunch of solar cells on its back that powered a refrigerator also on its back and in the refrigerator were medicines that had to be kept cold, just like the COVID medicines do. This camel, carrying the first array of solar cells in the 50s across the Sahara Desert and generating enough electricity to keep the medicines cool, kind of said it all. It said, "You know, it's darn useful to have electricity in the middle of the desert, and if we can have it there, we can probably have it everywhere else as well. Everywhere there's sunlight."

Julia Furlan (12:56):

Despite the hopeful message of this photo and its success powering satellites, Calvin was less optimistic about the potential of solar power. He thought it was unlikely to become a part of everyday life. What he didn't anticipate were two important events in the 1970s. One was an advance in solar cell technology. A new cell was built that cost 80% less to make, and that was good timing because in 1973, the OPEC oil crisis caused gas prices to surge throughout North America and Europe. This helped drive new interest in energy conservation and alternate energy sources, including solar.

Robert Fuller (13:38):

By then people all over the world were working on improving their efficiency from the 6% initial efficiency they had up to now it's 25% or more efficiency on these are arrays that we see going up all over the place in our neighborhoods now as people solarize their houses.

Julia Furlan (13:58):

Solar efficiency continues to climb. Today, there are solar cells in development that exceed 40 percent efficiency. And as efficiency climbs, the cost of solar technology is dropping… and fast. In 2009, the cost of a solar panel installation was $8.50 per watt. By 2020, that dropped to roughly $3 per watt. In 2021, only about 3 percent of US electricity came from solar. And that’s expected to reach 20 percent or more over the next three decades. 

Julia Furlan (14:35):

But even with better efficiency and a huge reduction in cost growth for the solar industry has been slow.

Robert Fuller (14:41):

But the reason it's been so slow to take off is because the carbon fuels, oil, coal, were heavily subsidized. How can you compete as an entrepreneur, as a business person against huge subsidies won by the carbon fuel advocates? The minute they either start subsidizing solar or stop subsidizing oil and coal, it would be a level playing field.

Julia Furlan (15:08):

But Robert is witnessing first hand that solar is headed in the right direction.

Robert Fuller (15:13):

I can drive through my town here in Berkeley, California, and see solar installations going up all over the place, partly because it's California where we get so much sun. It's especially good in those places or the Sahara Desert if you have a camel.

Julia Furlan (15:31):

All right. Back to that story of the camel carrying a solar array on its back.

Bob Freling (15:37):

I've got a picture of that and a cartoon as well.

Julia Furlan (15:41):

Like Robert Fuller, Bob Freling from the Solar Electric Light Fund, or SELF, knows the famous Sahara Desert photo too.

Bob Freling (15:48):

He's being shaded by the solar array. He's got a fan blowing on him powered by solar electricity and a refrigerator that's going to take medicines to a remote village and he's just a really happy camper. I loved it because it demonstrated a beautiful application of using solar to deliver an important service in a remote community.

Julia Furlan (16:11):

That's what's SELF does. They use solar technology to deliver important services to rural communities and developing countries all over the world.

Bob Freling (16:20):

We have worked extensively with programs to deliver medicine. In Haiti, we did a lot with the so-called solar direct drive refrigerators. These are units that do not require batteries that can store medicine for weeks at a time just using solar energy.

Julia Furlan (16:38):

Today there are roughly one billion people worldwide who do not have access to the electrical grid and solar has become a key technology in helping address this massive gap in global electricity infrastructure. Since it was founded in 1990, SELF has overseen roughly 750 solar installations, and because each project serves an entire community, Bob estimates that these installations have impacted the lives of more than a million people. Introducing solar technology to disadvantaged communities and developing countries wasn't always something on Bob's radar, but that changed one day many years ago when Bob was living abroad in Taiwan. He was working as a translator and someone offered him a tour of a factory that made thin film solar panels.

Bob Freling (17:25):

He presented a gift to me, which was basically like this plastic briefcase that opened up which had a thin film, solar array inside on both sides. So I remember taking it home that day and taking a ghetto blaster type of radio that I had at home, then taking this outside in the sun and plugging it into the solar array, the solar panel, and then having it turn on and listen to music come out. I was like, "Wow!" It was magical.

Julia Furlan (18:01):

The magic of solar cast a spell on Bob. Eventually he decided to reach out to the founder of SELF to offer his services.

Bob Freling (18:09):

We would travel to these extremely remote, dirt poor villages in the mountains of Gansu Province in Western China and install these very simple solar home systems that would provide enough power for several lights, a radio, and a black and white television. I remember seeing these families turn on a light bulb for the first time in their lives.

Julia Furlan (18:30):

The reaction of one elderly farmer has stuck with him to this day.

Bob Freling (18:34):

In a flash, the lights came on and as they did, an old man from the village rubbed his eyes and disbelief and exclaimed, "I have long heard that city folks do not need oil to generate light, but in all my 70 years, this is the first time to actually see such a phenomenon with my own eyes. What a beautiful site to behold." It's really what inspired me to become professionally involved in this field because I saw just how quickly and dramatically a solar panel could transform the life of a family or a village in remote parts of the world.

Julia Furlan (19:10):

In 1997, just a few years after joining SELF, Bob became its executive director. SELF's original mission was to provide electricity to individual homes by outfitting them with solar panels. In time, Bob began to realize SELF needed to expand its mission.

Bob Freling (19:26):

We could use it to power schools and health clinic and water pumping systems and communication systems. So that to me was the great opportunity that lay ahead was to harness the power of the sun to kickstart improvements across the board in health education, economic development, women's empowerment, water and food security.

Julia Furlan (19:49):

That combination of benefits comprises what SELF calls its whole village development model. This model uses a mix of different solar solutions customized to the specific needs of the villages they collaborate with to create self-sustaining, long-term benefits for off-grid communities.

Julia Furlan (20:13):

In 2006, a professor at Texas A and M reached out to Bob. This professor had recently visited the village where he grew up in the West African country of Benin. His village was in a region of the country with over 100,00 people, all of whom were living off grid. This professor told Bob that with a six month dry season, food security was a huge challenge.

Bob Freling (20:35):

They were desperate. We found when we visited that diets were very restricted and malnutrition was quite common. You'd see these kids running around with the extended bellies, a telltale sign of [inaudible 00:20:49] or malnutrition. So I started to think, "Okay, what could we do to help?" Well, I knew enough about drip irrigation to recognize that it could be a part of the solution.

Julia Furlan (21:03):

Drip irrigation was pioneered in Israel during the 1960s. It introduces water into soil at a very low rate with water dripping from a series of small diameter pipes called emitters or drippers. Water and nutrients reach the plant's roots in just the right amounts at the right time, enabling higher yields while saving on water. Solar powered water pumps aren't new. Neither was drip irrigation. But the combination of the two was revolutionary. Soon a local matriarch stepped in to run the solar market garden or SMG in Benin.

Bob Freling (21:40):

So Madam la President [inaudible 00:21:43] was her name. She's still around. She's in her 80s now. She's my hero. She was the president of the Dune Casa Farming Cooperative. With the SMGs, suddenly they were able to grow all kinds of leafy green vegetables, including cabbage and lettuce and carrots, and all kinds of fruits and vegetables are being grown in this solar market garden.

Julia Furlan (22:06):

Bob took delight in seeing how his new technology changed the community.

Bob Freling (22:11):

After we had installed the solar market gardens and they had been producing food that first year, I went back and I could see a noticeable difference in the kids. They were eating well, their families were eating well. They were earning income for the first time and using that income to help pay for medical fees and school fees for their kids. I think it raised their level of respect in their families. They were suddenly breadwinners.

Julia Furlan (22:39):

Bob and Madam felt they needed to tell the world about the incredible impact solar technology had for Madam's village, and soon they found their opportunity; a major your energy access conference in Norway. With a bit of luck, they were able to track down Madam's birth certificate and after a few frantic days of planning and paperwork, her passport was issued the day before her flight. Then came the day of the conference.

Speaker 5 (23:04):

So it is my great privilege and my great honor to introduce Madam la President.

Bob Freling (23:14):

She was very nervous. She had never done any public speaking before, but she was there on a mission and she got up very determined to let everybody know what this project meant to her.

Speaker 6 (23:29):

Hello, dear participant. I welcome all of you in this room. I am the president of the women's farming collective in Dune Casa. Solar energy saved us.

Bob Freling (23:52):

She said solar energy is changing our lives. We can now eat. We can now access water. We are earning income. This has been a game changer, all because of the sun. The sun is allowing us to do this. Afterwards, I remember the moderator of our session said, "Ladies and gentlemen, if we all needed to know why we're here in Oslo, I think we just heard it."

Julia Furlan (24:18):

Throughout the conference, Madam won universal praise and helped spread the word and the use of solar drip irrigation to other parts of the world.

Bob Freling (24:27):

She knew she was on an important mission and she delivered. She really did. Since that project in Benin, now if you Google solar drip irrigation, you'll see lots of examples around the world. Ours was one of the first, and I think a lot of people took inspiration from our work and went on to do their own projects using solar and drip.

Julia Furlan (24:53):

In recent years, lots of players have entered the off-grid solar market in Africa, but Bob and SELF were one of the first to recognize the potential of solar in the region. Over the past three decades, they have completed projects in over 25 countries and collected countless stories, just like Madam's. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed 200,000 people. SELF installed solar systems that brought power to eight health centers. In 2015, they installed a solar micro grid for an indigenous community in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Northern Columbia, allowing their [inaudible 00:25:29] people to power their coffee processing facility. SELF has used solar to bring the internet to schools in South Africa, provide telemedicine to villages in the Amazon rainforest, and power streetlights in Uganda to make public spaces safer for women.

Bob Freling (25:45):

Some of the poorest people in the world have been at the Vanguard of ushering in the solar age, right? They were among the first communities in the world, these folks in remote parts of Africa, Asian and Latin America living in rural isolated villages, they were the first ones to demonstrate the use of solar energy for all these applications. In some ways we're catching up now. Now solar's becoming more widespread in the United States and a growing number of households and businesses are installing solar onto their roofs. But the revolution was spearheaded by folks in the developing world that we've been working with.

Julia Furlan (26:27):

In a rather interesting twist of fate, the application for solar first imagined by Calvin Fuller and Bell Labs is now one of the most impactful use cases of the technology. But instead of providing phone service in rural America, it's powering remote villages with electricity for pretty much every service you can imagine. Calvin Fuller died 28 years ago, but his son Robert has no doubt that he'd revel in solar's coming of age.

Robert Fuller (26:55):

Solar energy was always something which it was said it has not come into its prime yet. It will, it's inevitable and my father, he would welcome him with open arms and see that the tortoise of solar energy was catching up with a hare of petroleum energy and it was destined to pass him. And the sooner, the better.

Bob Freling (27:20):

I can't imagine Calvin Fuller not the being very happy to see the positive impact that solar cells have had on the history of humanity and the many benefits that have come to our civilization because of his invention back in the 50s.

Julia Furlan (27:40):

I'm Julia Furlan and this is Ahead of Its Time, an original podcast from Setapp. Working on your next big thing? Setapp's productivity toolkit will help you stay focused and get stuff done. Head over to setapp.com to see if Setapp can help you bring your ideas to life.

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