Solar cells were first developed by the Bell Laboratories company and were used on an USA space satellite. The Soviet analogue appeared several months later. But nowadays people don’t have to command resources of space-faring nations to enjoy benefits of solar electricity. Today the technology is mature and economically viable for many customers. People choose to install PV panels all over the world, it works well even on northern latitudes. You can read more in the “Geography” section.
There are three generations of solar cell panels. The first generation is mainly based on monocrystal silicone technology – same as the first space solar panels were based on. Such panels are still the most popular. Their typical performance coefficient is 15-20%. The second generation uses different materials, which are cheaper, easier to manufacture and often allow to produce flexible panels. But a lower price is unfortunately combined with lower efficiency, typically 10-15%. The third generation encompasses many advanced and promising technologies, but today all of them are either too expensive or are promising but lack efficiency.
Common households and industry usually rely on the first generation, and sometimes the second. It is also useful to note that another solar technology, thermal collectors, are more mature and provide more benefits in Northern Europe. Still, there are many cases when solar electricity comes handy. There are two ways to use solar PV modules: as an independent system (of-the-grid system) or as a system connected to the national grid (grid-connected photovoltaic system).