Clean Power

Published on July 29th, 2012 | by Jake Richardson


Nearly 200,000 GW of Solar Possible for United States, Finds New Study

July 29th, 2012 by  

A new study from NREL finds that solar photovoltaics and concentrating solar power could generate an enormous amount of electricity in the United States.

The report is titled, U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS-Based Analysis.

In Table 1, it provides a number of very interesting figures. Chiefly, that it is rural utility-scale solar that could be dominant in the future, with 153,000 GW of potential. Texas accounts for about 14% of all the rural solar potential for the whole country. It also has about 20% of all the concentrated solar power potential for the nation. So, it appears this single, huge state could have a very bright future in terms of solar power development, and therefore in economic growth as well.



Typically, Texas is thought of mainly for oil and cattle, but sometime in the not so distant future, it might become a clean energy powerhouse. (These kinds of very large infrastructure changes have been speculated to have significant cultural implications. For example, the construction of a huge, underground sewer system in Victorian London was said by at least one scholar to have social psychological implications, and at the very least was a part of a different perception of public hygiene and public health.)

The same type of PV, in urban areas, they found to have a potential of 1,200 GW. Rooftop PV potential they rated at 664 GW.

Offshore wind was 4,200 GW, and enhanced geothermal was GW 4,000.  It was concentrated solar power, at 38,000 GW, that was in second place to rural utility-scale solar’s dominance.

It will be fascinating to see if the development of renewable energy in rural areas, where the potential is tremendous, will change the cultural views of some of the people there.

For example, recently, a relative and friend of hers, who is an Iowa farmer, picked me up at the airport in a new Hybrid Prius to drive us back to a tiny farming community. If some of these rural areas become the “energy basket,” so to speak, of America, will they be perceived in a more esteemed way by people living in large cities and on the coasts, who might tend to use words like ‘redneck’?

Often, these renewable energy news stories contain technical specifications and cost information, which is useful, but what about some of the cultural implications of the transition away from fossil fuels?

Every state in the US has notable solar power potential, according to the study.

Image Credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0.

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  • Altair IV

    The article linked above states that that amount of solar potential comes to 399,700 TWh annually, and adding the numbers up in the pdf’s table1 matches that.

    Wikipedia says that the total amount of energy consumed in the U.S. was 28,714 TWh in 2010.

    This means that solar potential alone can supply 15 times the current US energy needs.  Not just electricity, but ALL energy.  And the table in the pdf lists an additional 82,100 TWh for wind and other renewable sources, adding close to another 3x to that.

    In fact, *worldwide* energy consumption is listed in Wikipedia at about 132 PWh, so at current levels, the US alone could potentially supply >3.5 times the energy needs of the entire world.

    This particularly interests me because I often see nuclear lovers posting how we can’t make it with renewables alone and so we *need* next-generation reactors to be part of the mix.  It appears from this that nothing could be further from the truth.

    • John Hartshorn

       Nobody can deny that there is enough potential energy available for sun, wind and geothermal to supply all our energy needs. The advocates of nuclear are concerned about costs relative to what society is willing to pay. Although solar prices may drop by as much as 50-75% over the next couple of decades there are very few additional efficiencies to be had in wind generation, which is a fairly mature technology. You can never reduce the amount of land, labor and raw materials enough to produce power reliably at rates the market is willing to pay when you factor in the large expenditures in backup generation and energy storage devices which will be required once total wind and solar get to around 35-40% of needs. Keep in mind that we need to electrify transportation, space-heating (heat pumps) and industrial processes like metal smelting to get to sustainable GHG emissions levels. This will require tripling electric output before even allowing for expansion for further economic growth. A fully electric society in 2050 will require expanding generating capacity at better than 3% a year compounded over that time.

      Germany is pioneering the way in alternatives, but they are paying a heavy economic cost, on a scale that Americans aren’t likely to support. When you look closely at the new nuclear fleet that is being deployed, with improved third generation designs like the AP1000 being built now, and future breeder designs like the GE PRISM which can use nuclear “waste” as fuel, it would be short sighted to put all our bets on alternatives.

      Solar with battery backup is a good fit for homes with solar exposure but problematic for most other uses. Wind is relatively inexpensive but you can’t duck the intermittency issue once scale grows significantly. Except for a few selected locations geothermal and tidal are too expensive as is offshore wind, at least until someone designs a cheap way to anchor them and get the power to shore. Nuclear may not be your favorite choice but you shouldn’t reject it out of hand without even learning why proponents believe it is a useful, and for the time being essential, component of our energy future.

      • Bob_Wallace

        The industry and the EIA expect wind to drop another 20% in costs.  Down to $0.04/kWh.  The EIA is projecting solar at $0.08 in a decade.  And projecting offshore wind at $0.08/kWh a decade out.  Geothermal at $0.04/kWh.  

        I’m using a decade from now because it would be at least that long before any appreciable new nuclear could be brought on line.  New nuclear, cheapest number I’ve found, would be about $0.15/kWh.

        Put on your investor pants and think about whether to put your bucks in nuclear.

        OK, here’s the deal.   Many hours of the day wind (onshore and offshore) and solar will pump power into the grid at a nickle.  Since you can’t turn off your reactor, and more importantly turn off your loan payments, you’ve got to sell at a nickle and eat a ten cent per kWh loss.

        Let’s be kind to nuclear and assume that the wind and Sun let us down half the 24 hour day.  That’s an absurdly low wind/solar level.  But, never mind, let’s be really optimistic in favor of nuclear.  Now having the market all to themselves for half the day nuclear has to crank their selling price up to $0.25/kWh.  $0.15/kWh cost plus $0.10/kWh loss recovery.

        Do you really think that someone can’t build large scale power storage for less than $0.20/kWh?  That’s the price they have to hit in order to stock up with five cent renewable energy and go head to head with nuclear.

        We’re already storing electricity for less than $0.20/kWh with lithium-ion batteries.  There is at least one factory opening up right now that promises to produce grid storage at $0.06/kWh and projects being able to bring that price down to $0.015/kWh.

        Five cents for generation plus six cents for storage beats 25 cents for nuclear day in and day out.

        And I didn’t even mention natural gas which is producing power for five or six cents per kWh.  If you don’t think storage will happen that doesn’t save you.  Gas is here, gas is real.  Even if the price of NG goes up by 4x as some expect over the next several year 25 cent nuclear does not survive against 50% 5 cent renewable and 50% 20 cent NG.

        I’m very doubtful that we’ll see a carbon price placed on NG during the next few years which would drive its price high enough to make nuclear competitive.  Going carbon free is a great (and possibly a necessary) idea, but unlikely in our near future. 

      • Bob_Wallace

         “Nuclear power is so expensive compared with other forms of energy that it has become “really hard” to justify, according to the chief executive of General Electric, one of the world’s largest suppliers of atomic equipment.

        “It’s really a gas and wind world today,” said Jeff Immelt, referring to two sources of electricity he said most countries are shifting towards as natural gas becomes “permanently cheap”.

        “When I talk to the guys who run the oil companies they say look, they’re finding more gas all the time. It’s just hard to justify nuclear, really hard. Gas is so cheap and at some point, really, economics rule,” Mr Immelt told the Financial Times in an interview in London at the weekend. “So I think some combination of gas, and either wind or solar … that’s where we see most countries around the world going.”

        Mr Immelt’s comments underline the impact on the global energy landscape of the US shale gas revolution, Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown and falling prices for some types of renewable power.

        The shale boom has sent US natural gas prices down to 10-year lows, a trend some analysts believe will spread elsewhere, while the nuclear industry faces added costs and uncertainty after Fukushima.

        At the same time, a 75 per cent fall in solar panel market prices in the past three years has made solar power competitive with daytime retail electricity prices in some countries, according to a recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, while offshore wind turbine prices have steadily declined.” 

        Renewables with natural gas fill-in.  Until we get cheaper storage to use for replacing NG, that’s my guess.

        Will that mix get our GHG output low enough, fast enough?  Hard to say.  But it probably gets it down faster than the amount of time it would take to build hundreds of nuclear reactors.  (Just think about how slow it would be to get past community opposition once the few easy places are used.)

        Wind and solar go in very fast.  Once/if we get affordable grid batteries they should manufacture and install very quickly.

        • Edward Kerr


          I totally agree with you that nuclear energy is not cost competitive with any other form of  energy on a cost per kwh. When you add in the exigent costs of nuclear even thinking of using it becomes ridiculous. The potential for nuclear disaster is way too high in my opinion.

          Proponents of nuclear never factor in the inherent exigent dangers of nuclear (or coal either) when they come up with the tired and discredited “too cheap to meter” claim. I think that part of the problem is that vested interests don’t ever want to see ‘distributed’ energy production that they can’t control or charge for. They like the “centralized’ paradigm that has so richly rewarded them in the past.



      • Anne

        “You can never reduce the amount of land, labor and raw materials enough”

        The efficiency of solar panels increases continuously and these more efficient panels will become affordable. So, yes, you can reduce land. And labor too, because you need less panels to generate the same energy. Less panels require less labour to install. And less materials, which flexible thin film panels need very little of. Even crystalline silicon uses less and less materials, because the wafers get thinner and thinner.

        Unless you have a crystal ball, you can not say “never” because you don’t know the future.

        “when you factor in the large expenditures in backup generation and energy storage devices”

        If you know it’s too expensive, how much does it cost? Remember that part of the backup are the other renewables, like wind, tidal, hydro, geothermal, biomass.

        Wind is not intermittent, it is variable. Geographic spreading of wind farms will greatly reduce that variability. What we need is not more storage or backup, but more HVDC.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Apparently we have enough natural gas generation in the US right now to allow us to shut down all coal plants. Just a problem of not having those plants where they would be needed.

          That tells us that we have enormous potential to bring more wind and solar on line without needing storage. We’re building HVDC transmission right now so that we can spread the riches more efficiently.

          • John Hartshorn


            You must study the energy diagram to understand the distinction between “energy services”, which is the actual useful energy and comprises about 80% of input energy in all sectors except transportation where it’s only 25% of inputs, and total energy, which is the raw energy released by combustion or fission and is much larger. The difference between the two is known as “rejected energy” and comes mostly from the transportation and electrical sectors as heat produced but not used. The figures I used in my earlier post are all stated in terms of energy services, and doing all of this based on electrical output, rather than the raw inputs yields the threefold increase of electrical generation that will be needed. In other words electricity now supplies just under one third of our total USEFUL energy.

            Electrical production efficiency is improving steadily and the most modern gas combined cycle (turbine plus steam loop) plants are approaching 60%, but the industry average is stuck in the low 30s so about two-thirds of the energy produced by the industry (fossil and nuclear) is wasted. The nice thing about nuclear is, except for technical challenges in cooling, it doesn’t really matter because there are no associated GHGs. Cost is not the only issue when judging the feasibility of nuclear expansion. Utilities need to be able to deliver reliable base-load on demand and will pay a premium for the assured delivery factor and guarantee against future penalties for GHG emissions that nuclear allows. As for time to build, it will take a decade to get expanded nuclear up to speed but recall that during the period of roughly 1970 to 1985 close to 100 plants were completed. There’s no reason we can’t replicate that period with modern third generation reactors.

          • Bob_Wallace

            There are a couple of reasons we can’t build 100 new reactors in 15 years.

            1) Cost.  

            2) Lack of 100 “back yards” that would allow reactors.

            As for nuclear having a low carbon footprint, not if you use a lifetime measurement rather than tease out the sweet spot data.

      • John, were did the figure that we need to increase electricity production 3 times to get off fossil fuels come from?  Cause that’s just weird.  How did you calculate/check it?

        • John Hartshorn

           That’s a rough estimate derived by studying the LLNL chart of US 2010 energy use.

          When you add up the amounts of “energy services” in the 4 sectors of transportation, industrial, commercial and residential you get 41.88 quads, of which 12.77 are supplied by electricity at present. Ignoring the small losses probably associated with end-uses of electricity, 41.88 quads divided by current electric contribution of 12.77 equals 3.28. So roughly tripling electricity
          output would theoretically yield enough power to replace all the fossil fuels in use.

          It’s of interest that burning fuel for vehicular propulsion converts about 25% of the contained energy to useful work while burning the same fuels in combined cycle power plants  with thermal recovery of waste heat for industrial or space heating uses recovers 3 times as much energy. Of course doing it with alternatives or nuclear would reduce GHG concerns to a minimum. We can electrify transport rapidly by electrifying highways via buried cables inductively coupled to receiver coils on the underside of vehicles. Recharge for local driving while you commute to  work. It’s an obvious approach to problem of weak and expensive batteries, but requires central planning and vision by government. I believe some prototypes are being developed.

          • I think I see the problem.  Electric motors are over four times as efficient as gasoline engines are more than twice as efficient as diesel engines, so the electrification of transport would result in a large decrease in the total amount of energy used.  The amount of electricity produced would of course need to be increased, but not by three times. 

    • pretty astounding, eh?

      it’s a wonder that people are so adamant that the wind and sun (ALWAYS present somewhere, and quite predictable geographically) are so inadequate.

    • Well, at night there is a little problem with production. These assumptions are also just that and do not factor in the various issues that plague solar plants – like say, their terribly low capacity factor? Let’s also talk about the “myth” of base load generation shall we, for every PV farm you put up I have to put up one gas turbine to back it up. At night, you know – so your alarm clock doesn’t stop working.

      It’s a far more complicated problem than simply installing solar and wind. There needs to be some kind of balance between traditional type base generation and newer solar technologies – the reality is that while the panels and tech are getting better they simply are not there yet. 

      Before the accusations fly I am a supporter of renewable peaks, and worked for a good long time at one of the larger solar companies. 

      • Bob_Wallace

        ” for every PV farm you put up I have to put up one gas turbine to back it up ”

        No, for every PV farm someone puts up someone else turns off a gas turbine.
        Renewables are replacing fossil fuels. Luckily some fossil fuel generation is dispatchable so we can simply pause them and save fuel.

        Later we’ll finish the job with affordable storage. Folks are working out the kinks right now.

      • Looking at what actually happens in reality in places such as Germany, South Australia, etc. that get a large portion of their electricity from wind and solar, you can see that gas turbines or other fossil fuel capacity aren’t being built to back up wind or PV.  (If you think about it I’m sure you can see why they aren’t needed.)  Here in South Australia wind and solar have allowed us to permanently shut down one coal power plant while the other coal plant has been shut down and will only be started up again during the hottest months of the year.  (And given the state’s increasing solar capacity and falling electricity prices, it will probably shut down for good before long.)  This is the opposite of what you said is necessary.  Fossil fuel plants are being shut down as a result of wind and solar, not being built.

  • Ross

    “It was concentrated solar power, at 38,000 MW”

    I assume that mention of mere MW is a mistake given all the huge GW figures?

    • Dcard88

      Where di you get 38,000 MW.  I didn’t see that.  I saw 38,000 GW

    • Thanks, yeah. Got that corrected.

  • Edward Kerr

    Good article. However, those of us who are proponents of solar energy are well aware that the “potential” solar energy is massive. The problem lies in a political system that is “like warm” about solar and that that political system is ‘owned’ by interests that are downright hostile to and transition away from fossil fuels.

    Until we can reclaim “our government” any move to solar power will be painfully slow. Especially considering the urgency of the need to quit burning coal and fossil oil.

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