How much of the world would need to be covered in solar panels to power Earth? Hint: it’s not as much as you think
Let’s use our imaginations for a moment. With states like Hawaii and California pushing ever closer to full reliance on renewable energy, and more than half of all new U.S. energy sources coming online generated from solar, it’s not out of the question to imagine a world completely powered using energy from the sun. In your mind’s eye, what does this world look like? Surely every bit of clear space on Earth would be covered in solar panels if we were to capture enough sunlight to power the entire planet, right?
If we used photovoltaic solar panels that turned solar energy into power at 20 percent efficiency, which has already been achieved in the lab setting, we’d only need to cover a land area about the size of Spain to power the entire Earth renewably in 2030.
With a concept map, the Land Art Generator Initiative, a group focused on making public art that captures renewable energy, tried its hand at imagining what that would look like spread across the world. Its design involves just 18 areas of major solar construction, focused in areas with low population density and high sunlight, such as deserts in the Western United States and Northern Africa and farmland in rural China.
Their suggested solar zone in Africa takes up just one-eighteenth of the area of the Saharan desert, but would account for 1/4 of the global energy demand, powering all of Europe and North Africa. While it’s useful in their map to represent solar installations as large squares, in reality they could actually be spread over more space, with solar panels tucked away on rooftops and spread across deserts rather than concentrated at one enormous solar farm.
While a world that relies on energy from just a few carefully-placed solar areas would likely be unmanageable from a political standpoint, visualizing just how little space we would need for solar to power the entire planet is nonetheless encouraging.
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