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How to reach 100% solar power in the US without losing our deserts

One of Elon Musk’s favorite projections is that of powering the entire country with a 10,000-square-mile solar project located in the middle of the desert. And that may seem like a great idea at first glance, but when you take a chance and combine different projections from several research groups, you can’t help but find a better option. Elon Musk’s desire for taking over Arizona’s desert for this ambitious solar project that will power the entire country is not new. In fact, it’s an old argument that he keeps bringing up, and as insane as it may sound or as logistically flawed as it may be, it’s still technically possible to achieve.

All he would need is a patch of land consisting of 10,000 square miles as well as a battery that’s large enough to store all this energy. Researchers at University College London found that, even with more conservative figures, this kind of projection could work. If we multiply 10,000 square miles by 0.24 GW per square kilometer, multiplied by 0.21, it would equal 504 gigawatts. When this research was conducted back in 2013, the US’s annual consumption of electricity was 425 gigawatts, so this projection would cover the country’s entire energy needs—and then some.

However, reality is different. Possibilities and solutions are not by any means the same thing. Elon Musk provides a great possibility—and such a project is theoretically feasible—but that would create its own issues. For example, having a centralized national power supply makes the country vulnerable to cyberattacks or continental power outages due to storms.

Even if catastrophic storms are not common in the desert and the grid has not been remotely close to receiving a strong cyberattack, the risk is still a clear and present danger, which is something to consider.

The question is: is there a clear solution out there instead of just a mere possibility? There might be. Back in 2017, researchers from Michigan State published a paper that suggested the country could receive 40% of its electricity from solar windows. According to this paper, there are up to 7 billion square meters of window space that could be used for these purposes. If at least 15% of efficient solar window products were applied to that area, it would get us close to 40%.

This team of researchers earned a $1.3 million grant so they could further work on their organic solar cell window technology, and by 2018 they were achieving 15% with organic solar cells with a projected growth of up to 18%, which is incredible. Therefore, if we would cover our windows with solar, the aforementioned 40% would grow by a further 20%, meaning we would get around half of our electricity this way.

What’s more, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) back in 2016, rooftop photovoltaic systems have the technical potential of creating 1,228 GW of capacity and 1.432 terawatt-hours of energy generation per year. This makes up 39% of electricity sales in the US.

If we combine these two solutions, we would have 98.75% of our electricity needs covered without having to mess with deserts in Arizona or anywhere else. And these are only two options on the table!

Ben Schultz's picture

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 6, 2020 4:50 am GMT

Ben - this is a joke, right?

  1. Say your giant mythical solar array is in Arizona. Do you really think other states will tolerate sending hundreds of $billions to another state? Giving another state 100% control over their energy?
  2. While your 505-gigawatt solar array is charging your gargantuan batteries in Arizona, what's going to be powering the United States? Hmm?
  3. When cloudy weather covers Arizona, as it often does in winter/early spring, the whole country shuts down?

"In fact, it’s an old argument that he keeps bringing up, and as insane as it may sound or as logistically flawed as it may be, it’s still technically possible to achieve."

No, it's not.

"When this research was conducted back in 2013, the US’s annual consumption of electricity was 425 gigawatts, so this projection would cover the country’s entire energy needs—and then some."

No it wouldn't. And annual consumption of electricity is not measured in "gigawatts." One gigawatt is a rate of energy transfer, equivalent to 1 billion joules/second. Not a scalar quantity used to measure energy. 

Your first assignment is to learn the difference between power and energy, which might require an hour on Wikipedia. I know, it's tough, but if you don't want to sound like a child using words he heard Daddy say it's a place to start (you're welcome).

 

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