Solar Innovation Infographic

Scientists have been working to harness power from the sun for about 200 years. Over the past 40 years, solar energy technologies have made significant strides with NREL's help.

Today, photovoltaic (PV) technologies are fueling NASA's longest-running Mars rover mission, powering about 10 million American homes, and showing promise for emerging technologies like electrified windows, printable inks, and quantum dots.

This infographic explores major research developments and industry milestones that helped shape our U.S. solar industry.



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Solar-electric technologies are a scientific marvel. Solar cells, also called photovoltaic or PV cells, can convert sunlight into electricity. Photovoltaic cells get their name from the process of converting light — photos — to electricity — voltage — which is called the PV effect.
1839 — Edmond Becquerel discovered that the sun can produce an electric charge. 1954 — Bell Labs demonstrated that first practical solar cell.
1977 — NREL was born as the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), partly in response to the 1973 oil embargo. “Nobody can embargo the sunlight,” President Jimmy Carter.
1991 — President George H.W. Bush elevated SERI to National Laboratory status, renaming it the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
NREL is a world-leading solar energy research laboratory.
Today, the U.S. has about 45 gigawatts of installed solar capacity — that's enough to power about 10 million homes.
NREL powers its campus with more than 3 megawatts of solar power generated on site.
On average, a PV system installed by American workers every 2.5 minutes. NREL's solar research has been honored with 29 R&D 100 awards, known as the “Oscars of invention.”
The Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity rely on solar cells developed with NREL technology.
NREL leads research into thin-film solar cell 1/10th the diameter of human hair. This technology could lighten the loads of soldiers by 20 pounds.
NREL is exploring a new technology that could spray on solar cells like paint.
NREL currently partners with about 750 major corporations, small businesses, universities, and governments nationwide to advance U.S. energy innovation.
Solar energy is now an $84 billion U.S. industry that generates more than 260,000 domestic jobs.
And the sky's the limit. Renewable energy technologies could provide up to 80% of total US. electricity generation by 2050.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory July 2017
Data sources include,,, and