Critics of solar power are often very wrong-headed about this clean, renewable source of electricity. One of the most misleading claims is that there simply can’t be enough of it to be meaningful. They seem to be unaware of various facts stating solar power in the US could easily supply electricity to 40% of the country or more, at least.
Photo by Zachary Shahan for CleanTechnica
For example, a research study conducted by NREL found that about 40% of US electricity generation could be provided by rooftop solar power. “Across all building sizes, rooftop PV could provide 1.1 TW of electrical power and 1432 TWh of annual energy generation. That’s 39% of total electricity sales in 2013! Two-thirds of this potential comes from smaller residential buildings as opposed to commercial sites, which means that personal consumer decisions to install solar panels can be a primary driver for the industry’s growth.”
There’s another idea floating around that the continental US’s electricity generation could be handled by solar power. “Just 11,200,000 acres to generate 4,000,000 GWh of clean energy?”
Apparently, a little over 11 million acres is less than 1% of the land in the US.
Photo by US DOE
What land, though? Wouldn’t some of it have to be open space that is already used by wild animals and plants?
Yes, some of the land might have to be altered by constructing solar power plants.
However, large commercial buildings, residential building rooftops, single-family residence rooftops, parking lot rooftops, and parking lot canopies can provide space for solar power systems too.
One source stated that California could produce several times its energy requirement using solar power, without requiring a great deal of open space. So, there are a number of solar power scenarios for the US, and that fact is not surprising.
Elon Musk is sort of a clean energy and EV celebrity — what does he say about this potential situation? “If you wanted to power the entire U.S. with solar panels, it would take a fairly small corner of Nevada or Texas or Utah. You only need about 100 miles by 100 miles of solar panels to power the entire United States. The batteries you need to store the energy, to make sure you have 24/7 power, is 1 mile by 1 mile. One square mile. That’s it.”
Now, that’s an interesting perspective, because he is talking about using what sounds like parts of states that have a lot of open, unused land, which typically is considered to be void of natural resources for utilization by humans. Ecologists and biologists might strenuously disagree with this characterization and say that actually these areas are important ecosystems and they can’t be simply covered in huge fields of solar power arrays without some significant consequences. Or it could just be a generic calculation and example he’s providing to try to put the matter in perspective.
Some of these estimates might be a little on the high side in terms of how much land would be required because they may have assumed lower solar cell/panel efficiencies than the most current technology is capable of — which means even more solar power would be generated in the same amount of space.
Of course, a surplus could be stored using battery systems, but power capacity could also be overbuilt to make sure more electricity is built on low-resource days even if that means not using some electricity on high-resource days. Some studies have found this to be the cheapest approach.
Another point which generally is not mentioned is how the cost would change to get to such a scale. How many solar panels/cells would be required for such a colossal solar power project? If they were produced at such a scale, what would that many do to the cost of solar power hardware?
There are already relatively tiny places that are relying nearly 100% or even 100% on solar power, like Babcock Ranch in Florida.
However, the notion of trying to run a huge nation on solar is more of a “thought experiment” than anything else. It’s possible, but it’s not logical. Just like you could live on just 3 foods (or just potatoes as some have experimented with in the past), but that wouldn’t be logical, let alone ideal.
It isn’t necessary to generate all US electricity this way because the country also has more than adequate wind power resources, some geothermal, some pumped hydro storage, and so on. There is no lack of clean, renewable energy resources to develop. There has just been a lack of awareness and political will to do the right thing, to be more aggressive with clean energy.
One thing about solar power is that it actually doesn’t have to be placed on land to function. It wouldn’t add too much overall in terms of a whole nation’s electricity supply, but it is possible to place solar arrays on water too.
This example is not rolling out in the US, but it is to the scale of 150 MW in China, which is not a ton, but is a start. “Known as the Three Gorges area, it is now the site of the world’s largest floating solar power plant. When completed in May of 2018, the $151 million installation will generate 150 megawatts of electrical power.”
Japan has a much smaller floating PV setup at 13.7 MW.
Of course, some underutilized land may be ideal for solar power installations, such as at airports.
If you are interested in solar power in the US, one question that pops up is: How long would it take to install that many arrays? It depends on how much is put into it from the public and the private sector. If it so decided, the federal government could initiate a massive public works project. If this sounds like a silly idea, wasn’t the TVA a hydro public works project?
“The Tennessee Valley Project began in 1933 by the federal government after the passing of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was established after President Roosevelt sent a request to Congress for a new kind of federal agency. He requested that this agency “be charged with the broadest duty of planning for the proper use, conservation, and development of the natural resources of the Tennessee River drainage basin and its adjoining territory for the general, social, and economic welfare of the nation.”
We have plenty of infrastructure projects related to roads and bridges so why not solar power? It could help thousands of coal miners who are getting out of the coal business and their families. It could also help America become more energy independent and reduce air pollution.