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"Science fiction has gotten more accurate as we've gotten closer to the present, because science fiction stories have not only attracted, but also generated current scientists."
- Larry Niven

Solar Reception Screen  
  A device for converting sunlight to electricity  

I don't know what kind of experimentation was going on fifteen years earlier than the date mentioned. I'm also curious when the idea of a set of receptors in a 'panel' format.

The city of San Francisco replaced its antiquated cable cars with moving stairways, powered with the Douglas-Martin Solar Reception Screens.
From The Roads Must Roll, by Robert Heinlein.
Published by Astounding Science Fiction in 1940
Additional resources -

Henri Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in the late nineteenth century, which allowed the production of electricity directly from the sun. Photovoltaic power was never used commercially for many years, since it was very inefficient at turning sunlight into electricity.

See also the entry on sunpower screen, from Heinlein's story Coventry, also published in 1940. The first commercial solar panel was made in 1954.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Roads Must Roll
  More Ideas and Technology by Robert Heinlein
  Tech news articles related to The Roads Must Roll
  Tech news articles related to works by Robert Heinlein

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