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Amy Gleich

Amy Gleich

Freelance multimedia journalist. Recent graduate of the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication's Master's Program.You can follow Amy on Twitter.

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What A World Powered By The Sun Would Look Like

The Sun powers our solar system, so could it power all our Earthly needs, too? And if it someday could, where would all those solar panels go?

According to a graduate thesis by Technical University of Braunschweig student Nadine May, the number of solar panels needed to supply the entire world’s energy needs would fill just 25,000 square miles – or an area only slightly larger than the state of West Virginia.

That doesn't seem like very much, unless you live in West Virginia. If the amount of solar panels needed were divided evenly in every country, they would take up just 127.5 square miles in each. (Granted, that would be asking a lot of smaller countries like Bahrain, whose total land measurement is only 295 square miles.)

Area required.
Credit: LandGenerator.org
Caption: Amount of land needed to power the world with solar panels by the year 2030

So larger countries would have to host more panels – maybe even on a per-capita basis. This graphic is a good projection of a possible disbursement of panels worldwide for energy demands in the year 2030. The graphic places about a quarter of all panels in the baking hot Saharan Desert.

Why not just put all of the panels in the sunny Sahara or someplace similar? A few reasons. The more evenly distributed the panels are, the better; localization would help diversify infrastructure, reduce the inevitable power losses that occur over long transmission distances, and allow more countries to share the burdens of installation and maintenance.

Related Article: Follow the Yellow (Solar Panel) Road

There's also the argument against centralizing our main energy source, which is where the world is currently with oil. According to this article, out of the current top 10 leading oil-producing countries, at least two are in current conflict and the political situation in five of the others is considered "unstable."

Throughout history, the desire for commodities – oil, metals, food, etc. – has been a frequent cause of wars. So while it's interesting to imagine the land space needed to build enough solar panels to power the world, it's even better to imagine every country achieving, or at least approaching, energy autonomy thanks to a renewable source like solar power.

While sunny countries would have an advantage, northern hemisphere countries like Germany are proving that solar power is just as viable. Even with only about 65 days of sunlight per year, Germany has been called the world's "unlikely leader in solar power." This past June, Germany got more than half of its total energy from solar power. Solar power generation is up by 34 percent this year.

But while there’s a lot of good news about the potential of solar energy to scale up, the reality is that the technology to enable the creation of a worldwide solar energy grid isn’t here yet. Current solar panels can only capture 20 percent of the Sun’s energy, and to become a viable, wide-scale source of energy for the world, they would need to capture much more than that.

Our power needs aren’t going anywhere, though, and neither is the Sun. So it’s an idea whose time may yet come.  

By Amy Gleich of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Jelle on July 28 2014 said:
    Germany has a 50% solar supply only during a short period of a day. In kW not in kwh per 24 hr, in kwh/24 hr it is less than 10% . Please don't make it better than it is. Without storage systems has reached its limits.
  • John Scior on July 29 2014 said:
    I believe gemany encourages adoption of solar through governmentprograms. In the US, itseems that electric utilities dont ant solar because they impose tariffs or fees if you want to sell your surplus electricity back to them. You might have to pay a4.95 fee per month to sell them electricitythey buy from you at a verylow price and when thesun goes down, they sell you electricity at 5-10 times what they pay you.
  • David Hrivnak on July 29 2014 said:
    The area needed is likely a lot less. For example we like most people live in a house with a roof that I have unable to use for anything else until solar. Now with no additional land area, I generate over 90% of my power which includes my electric car. No extra land or power transmission needed. And I get to live and drive virtually pollution free. It is also nice to save $3500/year in energy costs.
  • Spec on July 29 2014 said:
    I have 24 panels on my roof and they provide more electricity than I need for both my house AND my electric car. And the only cost me $13K in parts . . . and that is before any tax-credit. (I did install the system myself though.)
  • Matt on July 30 2014 said:
    Unfortunately the article completely ignores 3 critical points that all but remove the possibility of powering the world with solar.

    1. Interconnecting every solar array into one huge grid is not only expensive, but due to the extreme attenuation issues would probably double the size of the area under solar to compensate.

    2. All the countries involved must co-operate with each other to ensure interconnections are maintained and power is allowed to freely flow. Human nature effectively kills that as a possibility.

    3. There remains the constant possibility of weather causing severe disruption to large critical installations. Even a cloudy day would severely reduce the effectiveness of solar arrays. It's also entirely possible that several countries be affected at the same time.

    Worldwide 100% solar is complete fabrication designed to drum up support, and give social media outlets something to crow about.
  • Fouzia on July 30 2014 said:
    The other important reason for equal distribution of solar panel to capture solar energy at our best is the earth rotation itself. When one country is at dawn, the other country is at dusk. Though,solar power is available 24/7, but it is not unlimited to any country all the time.
    I appreciate this first calculation for capturing solar power world wide idea and because we are just at the beginning of developing this solar industry, I believe in course of time with better panel and improved grid system, today's 20% will be increased gradually to 30% and so on.
    With extensive research we will able to move forward.
  • William Rodgers on July 30 2014 said:
    One issue with the verbiage and terminology.

    The thesis that is linked in this article does not discuss solar panels (panels directly generate electricity through the photovoltaic conversion process)

    The thesis, written in 2005 by the way so not recent, discusses the use of solar thermal power plants to achieve the 254km by a 254km coverage area. Solar thermal is much different technology then solar panels
  • basroil on July 31 2014 said:
    " the number of solar panels needed to supply the entire world’s energy needs would fill just 25,000 square miles – or an area only slightly larger than the state of West Virginia. "

    According to the CIA factbook that's twice the land for permanent crops in the USA, and 5% of all farmland used for crops!

    Here's some facts you don't know about 25000sq miles of solar:
    -If converted to solar electric in the absolute best conditions it would come out to 94TWh/yr, of which more than 2/3rds would be lost between line losses and storage losses
    -If in one location the local temperature difference would be high enough to incinerate anything in it's path as well as change worldwide weather patterns.
    - The total weight of such a panel would be about 1 billion TONS in the panel and panel frame alone, not including mounting and sun tracking
    - The amount of silicon needed would be equal to a hundred years of worldwide silicon output if silicon solar cells were used
    - The amount of CO2 released to make the panels would be equal to about 300TWh, or roughly 20 years of worldwide electricity output. The need to replace panels every two to three decades would actually mean that the panels could never achieve parity as a primary energy source.
  • Grateful Child on July 31 2014 said:
    ...or instead of subsidizing the oil compaines those billions of dollars, they could put one on everyone's roof. Electric bill goes from $150 a month, to zero. What are we waiting for?
  • Hackety Man on August 13 2014 said:
    What a great, encouraging article. Thanks, Amy!

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