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Published on October 7th, 2011 | by John Farrell


Local Solar Could Power the Mountain West Right Now, All of America in 2026

October 7th, 2011 by  

The Germans have installed over 10,000 megawatts of solar panels in the past two years, enough to power 2 million American homes (or most of Los Angeles, CA).  If Americans installed local solar at the same torrid pace, we could already power most of the Mountain West, could have a 100 percent solar nation by 2026, while enriching thousands of local communities with new development and jobs.

The following map shows what could have happened had the U.S. kept pace with Germany on solar power in the past two years (installed the same megawatts on a per capita basis).  Sunshine could power 10 states!

Solar Would Power the Mountain West if The U.S. Kept Pace with Germany

The spread of solar has also been in harmony with environmental goals.  Rather than covering natural areas or fertile land with solar panels, 80 percent of the solar installed in Germany was on rooftops and built to a local scale (100 kilowatts or smaller – the roof of a church or a Home Depot store).  Solar in the U.S. also can use existing space.  The following map shows the amount of a state’s electricity that could come from rooftop solar alone, from our 2009 report Energy Self-Reliant States:

State Potential Rooftop PV:

While the local rooftop solar potential of these states varies from 19 to 51 percent, there’s much more land available for solar without covering parks or crops.  Once again, data from Energy Self-Reliant States (p. 13):

On either side of 4 million miles of roads, the U.S. has approximately 60 million acres (90,000 square miles) of right of way. If 10 percent the right of way could be used, over 2 million MW of roadside solar PV could provide close to 100 percent of the electricity consumption in the country. In California, solar PV on a quarter of the 230,000 acres of right of way could supply 27% of state consumption.

Such local solar power also provides enormous economic benefits.  For every megawatt of solar installed, as many as 8 jobs are created.  But the economic multiplier is significantly higher for locally owned projects, made possible when solar is built at a local scale as the Germans have done.

With local ownership, making America a 100% solar nation could create nearly 10 million jobs, and add as much as $450 billion to the U.S. economy.

The Germans have found the profitable marriage between their energy and environmental policy.  It’s time for America to discover the same.

This post originally appeared on Energy Self-Reliant States, a resource of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s New Rules Project.

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About the Author

directs the Democratic Energy program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His seminal paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development.   Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.   John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at jfarrell@ilsr.org.

  • Alvin Mites

    I’m curious where you got the potential solar % by rooftop graphic would like to use it on http://solargardens.org Appreciate the article, does a great job of detailing the potential of solar in the US were it to become a legislative priority similar to Germany.

    • Alvin,

      That map comes from ILSR’s Energy Self-Reliant States report, published in 2010. You’re welcome to put it up on Solargardens.org, with attribution. Say hello to Joy for me.


  • Cal Morton

    I’m in the solar and small wind business in Texas, so I appreciate the enthusiasm, and its fun to play with numbers. However, if we can get solar to 5% of total average load in 5 years, I’m talking Texas, that would be awesome… about 1,500 MW.

  • You have brought up very fantastic points, thank you for the post.

  • Freealex1

    “If Americans installed local solar at the same torrid pace, we could already power most of the Mountain West, could have a 100 percent solar nation by 2026….”

    This claim seems wrong. The facts presented are:
    – So Germany, with ~82 million people have installed 10GWp over two years, or 5GWp per year. That is 0.06GW / million people.
    – The USA has ~300 million people. 0.06GW / million people = 18GWp / per annum

    So that implies:
    – The installed generation capacity of the USA is ~ 1,000GWp. So at 18GW / annum, it would take ~55 years to get to 1,000GW.
    – Of course, the US doesn’t use 100GW all 8,760 hours per year. The load/capacity factor of US generation capacity is about 50%. But you can’t discount that to 500GW, unless you also discount the capacity factor of solar PV (which is between 10-20% across the US)

    If I’m making a mistake, my apologies. But it would appear that either the claim above is incorrect, or is using some other underlying assumptions (perhaps an ever-increasing rate of installation or the like).

    But either way, such claims should be treated with caution. And such grand claims should certainly be explained a bit more.

  • Pingback: Tim O’Reilly on Local Solar Could Power Mountain West Post (Reader Comment) | CleanTechnica()

  • Anonymous

    “Sunshine could power 10 states!”

    Ten of the least densely populated in the country. If they merged into one, it would be only the third most populous, edging out New York.

    “The Germans have found the profitable marriage between their energy and environmental policy.”

    Opinions differ.

    “German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday solar energy subsidies should be reduced, and it could make more sense in the future to draw solar energy from places like Greece, where the sun shined longer.

    Merkel said that while wind energy seemed on track to becoming commercially viable in Germany, this did not seem the case for solar energy.”

    • Anonymous

      So? It does make more sense to install solar panels where the Sun shines most, as long as transmission makes sense.

      Germany is doing fine with panels installed Germany. Putting them close to point of use takes care of higher summer supply needs and Germany has summer sun.

      Germany can also profit from panels located further south. One does not rule out the other.

      Germany has been able to get nuclear off their grid and will be eliminating coal. And they are able to do that without driving their electricity prices through the roof.

      Just think what a “Fukishima” might cost in Germany.

      And, if Germans are paying anything like we are in the US in hidden coal prices, think about how many taxpayer dollars they will save by getting rid of coal.

  • Anonymous

    “If Americans installed local solar at the same torrid pace, we could already power most of the Mountain West, could have a 100 percent solar nation by 2026….”

    That’s a misleading claim unless you include a method to store that power at an affordable price in order to make solar 24/365.

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