Derived from the Greek word phos, meaning "light," and from volt, which was named in honor of the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, photo-voltaic (PV for short) describes materials with the property of producing electricity when exposed to sunlight.
The most common and most efficient photovoltaic products are made from crystalline silicon, representing over 95% of the market.
Now you know the basics, here's some more about photovoltaics:
Early Commercial Use
Photovoltaic technology dates back to 1839 and began significant commercialization in the United States in the early 1950s when Bell Laboratories demonstrated the first high power Silicon solar cell. (Click here for a detailed timeline.)
The early commercial solar market was driven by aerospace applications (satellites) and remote off-grid uses where bringing utility grid power was cost-prohibitive (imagine a 22,300 mile extension cord to power a satellite in orbit!). Early photovoltaic cell research and design led to small incremental improvements and over time, these small improvements added up to significant advances and as a result, the 1980s saw low enough costs that photovoltaics emerged as a viable on-grid application.
Researching and commercializing PV since 1959
Entered PV market in 1980 and acquired Solarex (founded in 1973) in 2000
Began production of solar products in 1973
Began PV R&D in 1975 and production in 1976
Acquired Astropower (founded in 1983) in 2004
Founded in 1998, Conergy is now one of the only vertically integrated PV companies in the world
Founded in just 2001, Suntech is now the #3 PV cell maker in the world
The other trend that began in the 1980s was industry consolidation. After the emergence of small PV technology companies from the aerospace industry, larger technology companies either initiated their own R&D programs or began to acquire or create joint ventures with some of the small independent players. With decades of experience and the financial confidence that large companies can bring to bear, a new industry standard was created – long-term output warranties.
Today, nearly all PV equipment is made by major brand name companies, most of which have decades of experience in the solar industry and continue to invest in new products and technologies.
Name brands you'll recognize in the solar business include Sharp, BP, Sanyo, Kyocera, Mitsubishi, Siemens, Shell, and General Electric. Other leading brands you may not be familiar with include Suntech Power (a San Francisco-based, publicly-traded Chinese company and the worlds 3rd largest manufacturer of PV modules), Conergy (a publicly-traded German company with over $1 Billion in sales and one of SustainableBusiness.com's Top 20 companies), and SunPower, a recent spin-off from Cypress Semiconductors.
All of these manufacturers stand behind their products with warranties up to 25 years.