Solar Energy Is the Future, Says Elon Musk
When it comes to predicting which direction new and exciting technologies will go, Elon Musk is one of the greatest visionaries in the world. It’s no surprise then that the legendary billionaire investor is banking on a renaissance in the underrated solar power industry.
Speaking in a December 15 interview at the American Geophysical Union, Elon Musk brought up an interesting scenario with earth-shattering implications. If we were to initiate a project where only a small fraction of an underpopulated state, such as Nevada or Utah, were to be covered with photovoltaic (solar) panels, it would provide enough energy to power the entire United States, says Musk. (Source: “Elon Musk just made an incredibly important point about solar energy,” Business Insider, December 15, 2015.)
This is not necessarily a new revelation, as Elon Musk outlined this hypothetical project less than two weeks ago on December 2 at a climate change talk at the Université de Paris Panthéon Sorbonne.
The gist of his argument is that if we were to utilize only a small corner of a country, such as Spain, covering it with solar panels, it would theoretically provide enough energy to power all of Europe. In more general terms, a deceptively small amount of land is actually required to generate massive amounts of electricity for modern civilization to thrive.
With so small an amount of land required to power this planet and the ideal locations conveniently located in unpopulated or underpopulated areas, one has to wonder if Musk’s idea does indeed hold water. Aside from the initial overhead costs, which would admittedly be massive, and the maintenance expenses, we would be looking at the end of reliance on fossil fuels and the dawn of a new age characterized by inexpensive energy for all.
But how realistic is this vision?
A quick look at the math brings us to the conclusion that Musk is absolutely correct. When you consider that more energy is emitted from the sun and hits the Earth in one hour than all of mankind utilizes in an entire year, some very interesting questions come up. If the technology to capture a sizeable portion of this energy exists and we have the means to do so economically, then why hasn’t the planet transitioned to solar power yet?
Solar power accounted for just 0.39% of the energy produced in the U.S. in 2014.
Elon Musk, on his part, believes that solar power will become the world’s most significant source of energy by the year 2031, which is in less than two decades. Photovoltaic panels are capable of turning 20% of the solar energy hitting them into usable energy.
Following this logic, covering an area of earth the size of Spain could easily power the entire world. And it doesn’t have to be in one location or necessarily near populated centers. Solar power would most efficiently be dispersed across countries, and continents, and away from cities in general.
Homes and businesses could, of course, begin installing rooftop panels, but the bulk of energy generation could come from desert-based installations.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), total estimated global energy consumption by 2030 will be 678 quadrillion Btu (British thermal units). (Source: “Elon Musk just made an incredibly important point about solar energy,” Business Insider, December 15, 2015.)
This equals 198.7 trillion kilowatt-hours. Dividing this by 400 kilowatt-hours of solar energy production per square meter of land and accounting for 20% transfer efficiency, an average of 70% sunny days per year, and an average 1,000 watts of solar energy hitting every square meter of land on Earth, the estimated energy needed in 2030 will require 496,805 square kilometers, or 191,817 square miles, worth of solar panels. (Source: “Surface Area Required to Power the Whole World With Solar and Wind Power,” Treehugger, September 3, 2015.)
The total land area of Earth is 148.3 million square kilometers, or 56.3 million square miles. That means that in order to generate the energy we are estimated to require by 2030, we would need to cover just 0.00335% of the planet’s surface with solar panels. And this is at today’s level of technology, which is all but certain to increase by 2030.
With numbers like these, you start to wonder why we haven’t begun a serious transition away from fossil fuels yet. Elon Musk has the vision, technical knowledge, and resources to begin an energy revolution that could literally transform the world.