We’re sure you are familiar with solar energy; after all, there’s a daily reminder of it. Solar energy, when it comes to the photovoltaic effect, has been around since the mid 1800s, but it wasn’t useful for us until over 100 years later when the first solar cell was invented. Since then, we’ve seen solar energy power a myriad of modern innovations and locations including watches, calculators, cars, gyms, solar street lights, houses—if it can be powered, most of the time solar energy is viable for it.

Solar energy technology has a revealing past. If you wanted to attach a solar panel to your house to save on energy in the 1970s, it would take several years to see a return. A solar panel back then sized at 60 x 40 inches would cost more than your average vehicle. The return on investment was paltry. Today, a solar panel of that size can cost you about 300 dollars—while delivering about double the usable electricity generated from sun exposure.  The reasons behind the cascade of price have been corporate investments, more efficient methods of developing panels, and automated processes to reduce the time and labor involved.

There isn’t just one kind of solar panel either. The market has plenty of different technologies, some more efficient and cheaper than others, in order to reduce the overall carbon footprint and save money. Monocrystalline silicon solar panels are some of the most efficient on the market because of how they’re manufactured; a single ingot is slowly pulled from a vat of silicon, removing 99% of impurities. This is called the  Czochralski process. Solar wafers are then sliced from the ingot and prepared to be placed on a grid.

Other processes are used to develop similar technologies—the most popular being polycrystalline and thin film—produce less efficient panels. As a result, monocrystalline panels are best fit for commercial solar projects, solar street lights, and businesses where a solar array is a viable solution for power supply.  Thin film is a lot more viable for rooftops—they’re easy to transport. Polycrystalline are best for smaller, more personal projects but aren’t as efficient as mono panels since the silicon is not as uniform. Regardless, the silicon solar cell technology has seen leaps and bounds in affordability and technology.

What does that mean for renewable energy today? A much wider spectrum of uses for one. Entire facilities can operate on solar arrays. A reduced overall carbon footprint is on the horizon because people are ditching traditional fossil fuels. One only needs to look at the effects of global warming and the severity of storms to see how traditional power can spell disaster for us. What’s important is that we inform and educate the masses that renewable energy is more viable than it ever has been in the past.

In the distant future, we’ll start to see efficiency ratings of 35% from perovskite solar cells. Unfortunately, the technology is still in development and isn’t marketable just yet. It’s exciting to think about how we’ll be able to pull more power out of the sun. If you see a panel in public, take a moment to marvel at how the technology developed from a single discovery in the 1800s to what it is today—a symbol of a cleaner, brighter future that’s closer to our grasp every day.