What Would It Take To Power The United States With Solar Energy?


Solar energy is a seriously underrated source of clean energy for the Earth and it remains largely untapped.

According to TechInsider, more power from the sun hits the Earth in a single hour than humanity uses in an entire year, yet solar only provided 0.39% of the energy used in the US last year.

Despite the small percentage of energy coming from Solar power, the amount of land required to run America on solar power is shockingly small.

Here’s the maths: It takes around 2.8 acres to generate 1 GWH of solar energy per year.

Currently, America’s energy needs equate to around 4,000,000 GWh.

And experts suggest that it would take just 11,200,000 acres to generate 4,000,000 GWh of clean energy.

The continental U.S totals 1.9 billion acres. That’s only 0.6 percent of the surface area of the continental United States to power the entire country with renewable solar power.

Check out the video below to find out more.

Unfortunately the answer isn’t quite so simple as installing solar panels across 12 million acres and calling it a day.

First of all, that 11.2 million acres will have to be rapidly and vastly increased once services such as roads, operational facilities and transmission lines are incorporated.

There’s also the fact that you can’t just build one massive solar array and walk away. Solar capture areas would have to be distributed over a wide area to make the most of the hours of daylight available and to avoid the problem of cloudy days or storms or other weather events that would obscure the sun pouring down onto your solar panels.

There’s also the problem that solar farms cannot just be put anywhere. There are animal habitats and ecological systems that need to be considered, as well as encroachment on Native American tribal lands.

Beyond questions of land use, there’s the issue of storage. One of the major issues currently holding renewable energy solutions back is storage.

The problem is that cheap battery packs have longevity or reliability issues while quality battery packs are prohibitively expensive to produce. In 2013, large-scale lithium-ion batteries hovered around the $1,000/kWh price point.

Fortunately for us all, visionaries like Elon Musk are working to tackle the storage issue and Musk has said that he  thinks that solar will become the biggest energy source by 2031.

Back in 2015, Tesla announced it had created one of the world’s cheapest home batteries, the Powerwall, the next-generation battery packs for both small-scale consumer use and large-scale company use, to be paired with a home’s solar panel generators.

Prices are set to begin around $350/kWh and will only get cheaper from here on out.

At the Powerwall launch, Musk talked about the main reason for creating his product: addressing climate change.

“A lot of people aren’t clear on how much surface area is needed to generate enough power to completely get the United States off fossil fuels,” he said.

“Most people have no idea. They think it must be some huge amount of area, or maybe some space solar panels…But this is completely unnecessary. Actually, very little land is needed to get rid of all fossil fuel electricity generation in the United States.”

“It’s really not much,” Musk said. “Most if it will be on rooftops.”

Musk highlighted that the amount of land needed to power the U.S was roughly “a few counties in Texas.” That represents about 160 million Powerwalls, Musk said.

“That may seem like an insane number,” but we have done things like this before, he said. It would take only a couple of years of replicating the rate of new cars and trucks that are swapped into the market each year, about 100 million.

One of the first groups to map this out was the Land Art Generator Initiative, which uses art to promote clean energy.

Based on calculations from  Land Art Generator, the Earth will need 191,817 square miles, or 496,805 square km, of solar panels for lighting up the entire planet with renewable power. The land mass calculated by Land Art Generator is nearly the size of current day Spain.


Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Video Credit: GOOD Magazine