As far back as the 7th Century B.C.E., there are accounts of humans redirecting the power of the sun with mirrors to light fires.

That is the earliest account of “solar power.” However, it wasn’t until 1954 that silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells were invented.

Even still, those first PV-cell systems were only capable of converting sunlight at 4% efficiency. And, in 1956, those panels cost $300 per watt of generated electricity. Not exactly an appealing cost proposition.

Fast forward to modern day, and the current cost of solar energy is now just $0.50 per watt – a sterling example of a new technology being optimized and made accessible for the masses.

While that breakthrough in 1954 was not the end-all-be-all for solar technology, it set the table for all of the developments that followed, bringing us to our present-day standing.

Of course, there are inherent limitations with solar energy – the land requirements, storage complications, weather dependency, etc.

That’s why many feel it is nothing more than a small part of the equation when it comes to eliminating our reliance on energy sources that pollute the environment.

However, the story of solar panels and their development through the years is starting to mimic the development of what has long represented the holy grail of energy generation: fusion.

And a milestone achieved last week marks the biggest breakthrough the industry has seen in the 60 years since the scientific concept was first proposed.

Now, it appears to be no longer a question of “if” but “when” fusion energy becomes a commercial reality – ushering in a new era of energy generation altogether.

Generally speaking, “new eras” are often led by new players in the business world. And thanks to this development, there are a number of startups in the fusion energy field that just took a big step closer to realizing their ultimate goal.

To define it simply (perhaps too simply), fusion energy is the same as the kind in the sun and the stars. As atoms fuse together, they release energy. However, getting those atoms to fuse has been an issue – or, more realistically, way too inefficient.

While the first successful fusion took place all the way back in 1952 – yes, before modern solar panels were invented – those reactions produced infinitesimally less energy than was required to generate it.

As a result, the concept of nuclear fusion as a viable source of energy remained theoretical.

Well, this week’s breakthrough goes a long way toward changing that, as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California successfully achieved what it called “scientific energy breakeven.”

With an input of 2.05 megajoules of energy, the experiment produced 3.15 megajoules, a monumental achievement that will help inform R&D in the space moving forward.

“This is a landmark achievement for the researchers and staff at the National Ignition Facility who have dedicated their careers to seeing fusion ignition become a reality, and this milestone will undoubtedly spark even more discovery,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement December 13.

While the laser that was fired at the atoms to produce the 3.15 megajoules of energy required 300 megajoules of energy, illustrating the work still to be done to produce enough energy via fusion to run a power plant, this development truly opens the doors to reaching that point.

“This announcement is a terrific culmination of years of incremental progress,” Greg Twinney, CEO of British Columbia-based fusion startup General Fusion, wrote in a LinkedIn post December 13, “and now it’s up to companies like ours to design practical electricity-producing machines.”

This “holy grail” has very quickly gone from a pipe dream in many people’s minds to something that represents perhaps our best chance at a full-on clean energy transition.

General Fusion is one of many startups working diligently to be the first to crack this code, and whichever succeeds could emerge as one of the truly dominant players in the energy industry.

Suffice to say, we’re going to watch this sector very closely in the coming years, and we recommend you do the same.