Amazing Map: Total Solar Panels To Power The United States

total-solar-panels-to-fulfill-electricity-demands-of-united-states
square area = 44 miles per side

This amazing map illustrates the total area of solar panels that would be needed to fulfill the electricity demands of the United States.

Here are the facts that I used, and the caveats to the map illustration…


 
The United States Energy Information Association (eia.gov) reveals in their December-2013 ‘Electrical Power Annual’ report, in Table 8.6.A, that the peak load for all interconnections of electricity during the summer of 2012 was 767,762 Megawatts within the contiguous United States.

It is also reported that total electricity consumption for the United States during 2012 was 3,694,650 million kWh (million kilowatt-hours).

3,694,650,000,000 kWh Total 2012
3,694,650,000,000,000 Wh Total 2012
10,122,328,767,123 Wh Daily Average
421,763,698,630 W Hourly Average
767,762,000,000 W Peak Load

 
I chose a 250-watt Sharp ND-250QCS solar panel (made in the USA) 65″x39″ each.

767,762,000,000 watts / 250 watts per panel
3,071,048,000 total panels

PER PANEL
2,535 sq.”
17.6 sq.’

TOTAL NEEDED
54,063,240,833 sq.’
1,939 sq. miles
44 miles per side of square

 
I chose the location near White Sands Desert in New Mexico because the geographic area there receives an abundant amount of sunshine.

total-area-square-miles-of-solar-panels-for-united-states-electricity

It is very interesting to visualize equivalents, such as the total theoretical area required to supply the total demands of electricity for the United States.

 
Now the caveats…

CAVEATS AND PROBLEMS

That is a-lot of solar panels! 3 billion of them. However it is an interesting thought to consider the total approximate cost of these panels compared with what the United States government spends every year on everything else… If one approximates each panel to cost $250, the total cost would be $767 billion. To put it in perspective, the government spent 3,600 billion in 2012.

The raw materials and manufacturing capability would be enormous to build that many panels.

The infrastructure and additional equipment needed would be tremendous.

It’s dark at night – no solar power generation… so traditional power would required during those times. A battery storage bank would be unimaginably huge for night storage at these power levels…

Solar panels and inverters are not 100% efficient.

There will be cloudy days.

Less sun during the winter months unless this was built on the equator.

 
A SOLUTION

While it may not be doable to build a central location for our nation’s electricity needs, it is very doable to augment one’s own electricity needs with solar photovoltaic panels. Even building an off-grid system is entirely within the realm of possibilities for many people.

In any event, it was an interesting exercise to determine how much total area of solar panels would fulfill the nation’s electricity demands. It’s a smaller footprint than I initially thought it would be…

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46 Comments

  1. It’s interesting to put some perspective to a question like this. When I look at the little solar panels on those blinky light signs along construction zones, I wonder just how many I would need to have some minimum level of comfort and power in my own home.

  2. The question is one of how much energy must be expended to create the solar panels and related infrastructure, compared to how much energy that can be generated (energy return on energy invested {EROEI}). And since we are talking about using solar to replace other sources of energy that generate electricity, we also must compare the the EROEI from solar with the EROEI from current sources.

    If we generate the same amount of energy using solar, but with a lower EROEI than with present energy sources we have a problem. Our energy profit is less so we can’t run as big an economy on a lower EROEI source without producing significantly more total energy to compensate for the lower energy profit margin.

    And the second problem is that our most significant, energy dense, highest return source of energy is oil, and we depend on it for transportation fuel. If anyone is thinking of replacing oil with electricity for transportation, then the additional expenditure of energy to create a totally new infrastructure must be taken into account. This conversion wouldn’t be easy in an already energy constrained economy. It was easy to replace horses and buggies with cars because we were awash in cheap energy, unlike today when we only have the expensive energy remaining; we already burned through the cheap stuff.

    Here is an article that puts the problem we have in perspective, and which explains why collapse of civilizations is a product of diminishing returns, exactly what we are experiencing today. The effort to use solar energy is simply a reflection of this dilemma:

    1. If that argument would be true it would be wise to use those energy resources left to build a renewable energy infrastructure as soon as possible.

      Even if PV has “only” an EROEI of 10:1, it is better to install them now, than use your precious fossil oil with a EROEI of maybe 30:1 just to fill that SUVs, isn’t it?

      BAU tactics will just make things worse, IF that EROEI-to-collapse theorie is true. (which I doubt, because around 80-90% of our “precious” energy is currently wasted for almost no benefit, because it still is dirt cheap, so there is huge room for improvement)

    2. Your analysis is faulty. You are trying to apply a ROI calculator but are comparing ALL sources of energy to each other. Solar PV provides an alternative to current forms of power GENERATION, including natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, etc. It does NOT belong in the same calculus as, for example, gasoline/diesel use for transportation.

      1. Additionally you have to be careful comparing consumption and generation of electricity. The United states produces 27.5 trillion kW or 94 quads (quadrillion BTUs) of energy per year (2012) and you are consuming 3.69 million Kw, that only accounts for 13 % of energy production.

    3. This article expresses the cost in terms of the government constructing the generation site. That is not relevant, since power generation is conducted in America by for-profit entities (though heavily regulated)

      Even if solar were ultimately viable, convincing all of those private entities to invest in it cooperatively, is simply not realistic. Secondly, the labor and construction cost of a such a massive facility. Simply stated, the free market (or quasi-free market as it exists in the utility context) simply doesn’t provide the incentive for this; especially in the quick payoff instant-gratification mentality of the investment marketplace.

      Couple that with the extreme economic impact of losing gas (or coal) production, and you pound the nation with an economic hammer that would far outweigh the benefit of the clean solar power.

      What good is clean power if 10 million people are out of work.

      Making a quick transition to zero emissions power is simply not going to happen. Even thought it might be possible, it is not viable. Those are two different things.

      As for electric vehicles however, we do have a solution for powering them. Its called methanol. There is virtually no infrastructure change required. It can be transported and dispensed at retail through any current gas station, with a small percentage that would require some minor conversion.

      All internal combustion cars can run on methanol with little to no conversion needed. A maximum cost of $1000 per vehicle can convert any car to dual fuel methanol/gasoline. Running 85% methanol blend can reduce our oil consumption in America by as much as 50%.

      It also provides for a seamless transition to electric vehicles. Battery powered electric vehicles can never comprise any majority of the cars on the road, and the grid and infrastructure build outs would be tremendous. There needs to be a liquid fuel. And what more perfect than one that can also power internal combustion vehicles? They can fuel up at the same pump. Methanol fuel cells are where the future lies, and gives us a truly viable bridge energy market for existing vehicles.

      We can cut vehicle emissions by nearly 90% in this country within 5 years if we really wanted to.

      If we cut those emissions, the power emissions become less of a factor and we can stretch that type of power usage out many many more years with minimal impact.

      Just as a closing note, if we converted the worlds top 10 cargo ships to methanol…just 10 ships…really-yes…10 ships. We would cut global transportation emissions by about 40%. Yes. The top 10 ships produce more pollution than all of the worlds other vehicles combined.

      And we (the world) absolutely have the ability to make that happen inside 12 months.

      You have to understand the overall economics of the problem. Simply stating that solar could power the USA, is very short sighted.

      1. Those top 10 cargo ship’s must be bellowing smoke like volcanos in order to be polluting that much

  3. You could most likely solve the problem of battery’s by having home store their own and the could be charged through the system. I am not an electrician but I would think that would solve the problem.

    1. Folks do just that. However, for “typical” grid-connected residential use, current deep-cycle battery designs are large, heavy, expensive, and hazardous for a typical homeowner to manage.

      1. I just sold a home that was 100% off grid, 3400 sq ft and did not find that my battery bank was a problem. The cost of the batteries and replacing them every 5-7 years was. My cost was $7,000. I was at 6,500′ elevation and on a half acre so had plenty of open space to place the panels. My roof was not an option as it basically faced East-West.
        I had propane for cooking, and emergency heat. I also had wood burning stove that went through 5 cords of wood a year. Since I was off grid I had no opportunity to sell excess back (when I did have some in summer). I had no air conditioning (thanks to the elevation). Solar provided about 40% of my energy production cost. Total outlay for complete system was about $50,000. My cost would be significantly cheaper today as I built mine 15 years ago. I did upgrade 1/2 the panels 5 years ago due to a hail storm. Today I would expect that I could build the same system for $35,000 with no labor cost as I did it all.

  4. I first got my hands on two small PV cells in the mid 50’s. I have been a fan ever since. But the simle truth is that PV has not lived up to the hype. It is very expensive and almost all of the expense is the cost of energy used in the manufacture of the panels and their associated support components. I have some panels on my motorhome and they work well, I can get a couple of hours of laptop time for the two of us everyday as well as a few hours of light. Or I can run the TV for 4 hours. I’m happy with that and it is an example of a reasonably practical small system. I would never consider PV for a whole house application because of the cost. In my opinion the whole purpose of PV as it exists today in the U.S. is to get the subsidies and not because it’s effective or practical. There are a few situations where it makes sense but in most cases it is about the subsidies and not much else.

    1. PV makes sense for off-grid, with bottled gas for other energy needs. PV makes sense for a backup source of electricity if the grid goes down. If you live conservatively when off-grid and conscious of your energy use, a PV system does not have to be too expensive. It is true that they are not cheap and grid electricity is cheaper, but for some people it is worth it, especially if you have the means to purchase what you need for peace of mind or self sufficiency.

      1. I agree. I’m not anti-PV. Mostly I’m just disappointed that the cost is still so high for all the years of predictions of a breakthrough right around the corner.

        1. “GoneWithTheWind” said :

          “I agree. I’m not anti-PV. Mostly I’m just disappointed that the cost is still so high for all the years of predictions of a breakthrough right around the corner.”

          Stay tuned. As I write this in Dec. 2016, I’ve just read an article that says the cost of solar cells has dropped 40% in the last 5 years. On top of that, there are probably 10 different new solar cell technologies that are going to increase the efficiency of cells from the average ~15% to about 20% – 25% — and that will change ALL of the associated costs of solar arrays. Which means that we really are on the brink (5 to 10 years away) of solar power not just becoming economically competitive, but also becoming an economic powerhouse.

          Hundreds of labs around the world have been working feverishly for a coupla decades and their hard work is about to pay off. It’s unfortunate that the technological advances have taken so long that you and I didn’t see them earlier in life, but that’s just the way the ball bounces.

  5. Your 2012 US consumption figure of 3,694,650 + 6 zeros kWh is based on a 365/24 hour basis. Even at the very best location a solar array will only give an output of 6.5 times it’s rated power – i.e. 1kW array will produce 6.5kW. per day.
    Most “good” locations will produce a power output of 3.5 – 4.5 times rating.
    Poor locations much less than this (over a year).

    You can’t put all your eggs in one basket.
    (a) The transmission costs would be not viable.
    (b) Open to abuse (terrorism attack or hack attack)
    (c) A fairly decent CME would wipe out your array.
    (d) A large dust storm could ruin your day.

    Solar cells and related electronics must be manufactured in the west with high quality standards. The panels deteriorate over time – Chinese panels certainly much quicker – some have been known to die within 5 years. The inverters and transformers from China have been known to have real quality problems.

    The large solar arrays implemented around the world in desert locations have all closed down for either technical reasons, financial fraud or just plain an idea that was never going to work.

    1. I agree with your assertions. The reason I posted the article was from a curiosity that I had as to how many solar panels would it take to power the entire electrical needs of the U.S. and how big of a footprint would that be… I was quite surprised that the footprint would ‘only’ be a square of 44-miles on each side. While that is an astounding number of solar panels, it is a small relative footprint to our land mass.

      I’ve been using solar PV panels for many years, and thoroughly enjoy the ability to harness my own ‘free’ power rather than pay a utility for its equivalent… I suppose it’s the added bit of self-sufficiency that is appealing.

  6. While the calcs are interesting, there is a major reasoning fallacy.

    You don’t need a 44 square mile single facility.

    Instead, you engage in point-production, where the cells are located at the user endpoint of the power, like the homes and buildings, and drop the rest onto the already existing grid. Bingo, infrastructure problems solved, production increases by 3 hours a day, and more energy-efficient.

    Centralized production for a decentralized power resource (the sunlight) simply doesn’t make any sense like it partially does for burnable fuels or hydro. Trying to make solar that way is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

    1. I did this for the calculations, and out of interest as to how many panels it would require to supply the electrical power consumption of the United States. Centralizing something like this obviously does not make sense. I posted it for others to ‘visualize’ the equivalent footprint. I thought it was interesting…

  7. Hi there.

    You based your consumption on peak load and power rating of the panels.

    For comparison: Germany’s currently installed PV power is rated at 36GW and it’s peak load is around 85GW, so that’s already 42% of the peak demand (which occurs not during sunshine time in Germany).

    In reality peak power production so far was around 28GW. Not all panels are installed in the same direction, panals don’t reach their rated power when they are hot, etc…

    Mot of those PV systems habe been installed during 2008-2012 when prices ahve been around 3x higher than today. So at todays price point a similar investment would have given us 100GW of PV power with a peak demand of 85GW.

    Germany is a highly industrialised country with a significant export rate.

    More than 80% of Germanys 36GW of installed PV power capacity is installed on roofs and doesn’t “use” any additional space. There are still lots of roofs avaiable to install more PV power.

    Storage and backup power is another (important) thing, of course…

    (Germanys electricity consumption was 592TWh in 2013 and PV power plants produced 28TWh, that’s roughly 5%. But Germany is quite cloudy)

  8. As a E.E. I must say this is a great analysis. It put’s things in perspective. While they may never be a total solution if we could offset something like 20% to 50% that would be huge. Energy storage is the problem, but with sufficient economies of scale that can be worked out. I wish more people used actual math and facts instead of emotions.

  9. I challenge some progressive governor, of a western state, (nominate Gov.
    hickenlooper of Colorado) to build a 1 square mile solar panel site to
    demonstrate the potential of solar and to serve as a testing ground to
    work the bugs out in preparation for larger projects.

  10. This is neat, but there is also the factor of line loss over great distances and stuff. The real solution is exactly what is already happening. Solar is finally economical enough that people are sticking the panels on their houses at higher rates than ever before. With the gigafactory coming online, battery storage in people’s own houses will be a reality soon too. The big advantage here is that we are generating more and more power right where it’s consumed. This means less stress on the infrastructure in place. With significantly better and cheaper panels coming out every year, this only makes more and more sense moving forward. Good stuff!

  11. If I use the figures from an existing solar thermal power plant (Ivanpah Solar Power Facility) I get a much larger figure: 57,000 sq miles, or a square 239 miles to a side.

    Ivanpah Solar Power Facility uses 4000 ha, and is “supposed” to produce 1000 Gwh annually. I also get a cost of 8 trillion, though I doubt any such facility could be built for that price, since scarcity of material would drive the cost up.

    To cover energy needs for the night, and for the winter months, batteries are a bust. There’s not enough lead deposits known to cover even 1% of the needed batteries if they were the cheap lead-acid type. Plus it would drastically add to that 8 trillion dollar figure. They would need to be replaced a lot more often than the mirrors of the facility would as well.

    I also dread the thought of the toxic wastelands that would be created in trying to build such a system. The fuel (sunshine) for solar energy might be free and clean, but creating the facilities to harvest, and store it, is certainly not.

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  13. the concept of central power production and delivery via a grid will soon be ancient technology. Individual power production and self contained storage at each site of energy use will be the future of energy systems. Current power utilities are fearful of this future and spend tremendous amount of money and time to undermine the renewable technologies. It is inevitable. Power utilities and the wasteful, fragile energy grid will be replaced. This will create a tremendous growth in all aspects of renewable energy systems, increasing business and employment opportunities.

  14. Nice try, but your “Science” is flawed.

    Replace All Coal, Crude Oil and Nuclear with PV
    • PV Energy Needed (QBtu) = 47.057
    • Equivalent kWh = 1.38E+13
    • Number of 1-m2 PV Panels Required to Produce Needed Energy = 18,388,060,454,653
    • Number of Square Miles of PV Panels Required = 7,099,667
    • Total Land Mass Area of United States (sq. miles) = 3,531,844

    Assumptions:
    Btu to KWh conversion: 0.000293071
    QBtu = 1 x 1015 Btu

    kWh equivalent assumes 5 hrs of continuous solar radiation on a 15% efficient one square meter PV panel 3.86E-07

    PV Power is only available for 5 hours during unencumbered sunlight hours. After which an alternative source needs to be utilized.

    1. Stovk….Your Math is Fantastically Wrong….and your understanding of solar PV.
      Are you a troll working for some large oil conglomerate?

  15. Still there are those who think solar is the answer, put it on your roof, carry it on your back or on your hat and every other place the sun shines. Did they even read the writers Caveats and Problems. These are the same people who want us to pay for their net metering, will not be able to sell their house to every buyer, because they put an “asset” on their roof that “increases” the value of their house to a buyer, who now can”t afford it and, now is out of their range. They will complain when their solar panels don’t last as long as they thought, their house insurance goes up, that heavy wind may affect panels, a house fire will be a disaster to put out(see Dietz, Watson warehouse fire a couple of years ago).
    Wake up, you are just building a power system for your energy company and, took all the risks and cost you will never recoup, when energy prices come down.
    Don’t come crying to the the public to bail you out. It’s a free country; what you sow, so shall you reap.

      1. Lance, what “1234unknown” has done here is called “concern trolling.” It’s the process of throwing out a bunch of mushy, abstract, undefined, POSSIBLE speed bumps machine-gun style, and then acting as if those possibilities are certainties that make the subject or goal impossible to achieve. It’s the ignoble act of casting doubt and acting like the slightest doubt about an idea makes the idea completely implausible.

        It’s the deplorable decision to be a WILLFUL nattering nabob of negativism — to quote Spiro Agnew — which people almost always do because they are ideologically opposed to an idea. Liberals do it regarding nuclear power — and look stupid for doing so. My own conservative pals — engineers all — do it regarding wind and solar power — and look stupid for doing so.

        Solar and wind power are finally becoming economical, practical and doable, just as nuclear power has become 1000 times “safer” (it was always safe) as a result of the march of technology and brilliant new reactor designs that structurally eliminate failure points, vulnerabilities and design weaknesses.

        The only way to deal with this kind of attitudinal horse manure would be to make a documentary, in either case, that takes every single BS objection and show in big, crayola crayon colors that are absolutely undeniable why that objection is false and invalid. I dare say that persuading my conservative friends that wind and solar are now practical will be far, far easier than convincing liberals that nuclear is safe, economical and practical because liberals are far more emotional than conservatives and hating nuclear power is one of the pillars of Leftist orthodoxy.

  16. Really now? And would everyone be happy with an additional cost of $40,000 per home and still have to hook to the grid as the sun doesn’t shine at night? The savings in energy cost could take more than 30 years to recoup in most parts of the country due to cloudy days.
    Some states do not give enough of a credit for solar turned back to the grid to be of help (like Nevada that has huge solar potential).

    1. 30 years is not accurate and even if it was its WAY better than the payback with the electric company….

  17. How Much Money Would It Be To Power The United States of America On Solar Energy?

    Answers Based On 2012

    Math Factors:

    – 3,071,048,000 total panels 250-watt Sharp ND-250QCS solar panel (made in the USA) 65″x39″ each (3,071,048,000 total panels)

    – 767,762,000,000 watts

    Math:

    How Much Money For Solar Panels?:

    Total panels 250-watt Sharp ND-250QCS solar panel (made in the USA) 65″x39″ each= average price = $360

    X 3,071,048,000
    ____________________________________________________________________________

    $1105577280000

    One Storage Battery = 250 megawatts

    Amount Of Storage Batteries:

    767,762,000,000 watts = 767762 megawatts

    767762 megawatts / 250 megawatts (battery) = 3071.048 = 3081 250 Megawatt Storage Batteries

    Summary:

    It would take 3,071,048,000 250-watt Sharp ND-250QCS solar panel (made in the USA) 65″x39″ each (average solar panel) to run the United States of America.

    All the panels can produce 767,762,000,000 watts of energy, enough to run the United States of America in 2012

    It would take 3081 250 megawatt Storage Batteries to hold 767762 megawatts of energy. As you know 767762 megawatts of energy is equivalent to 767,762,000,000 watts of energy

    Excluding the cost of huge megawatt batteries, energy production plants, and a method of transporting the electric pulses throughout the United States of America it would cost roughly around $1,105,577,280,000. (About one trillion dollars)

    1. Actually, we don’t have to replace ALL the Electricity used in the US by Solar PV, since Hydro Power still exists, and there is lots of untapped Small Hydro, Mini Hydro, and Micro Hydro left.

      Best thing about solar power is it is reasonably predictable, can be build for covering peak demand, and can be local!

      Plus, Solar Power combined with Electric Cars, (EV+PV), is sometimes more directly valuable than just PV to replace grid power, as it helps to replace ICE miles driven.

      Take a personal step in looking at your current Electric Bill: it might even directly tell you you daily use average, or you can take total used, divide by billing days, and go with that. Step 1, lights are most talked about, so move towards LED Lighting. Consider your TV and Computers: are the screens LED yet?

      These are the easiest steps to trim consumption. PC’s use more power than many realize, and my own PC used to use more Electric Power in a 24 Hour period, than an EV used to drive me to work and back!

      Tesla’s new Powewall, just 1, would store enough for me to cover a full 24 hours of normal use, without any extra conservation!

      As we reduce wasted power, we need to produce less, and it takes less Solar to replace a lower demand, as well.

    2. “250-watt Sharp ND-250QCS solar panel (made in the USA) 65″x39″ each= average price = $360”

      I see them for $250 on ebay. Plus, if we’re buying 3,071,048,000 of them I bet we could get a bulk discount.

  18. $1.1 Trillion, I’m surprised Obama has not written an EO for that….
    A mere drop in the bucket for him and his community organization skills.

    NRP

  19. That’s not really how it would work. You would have to consider installing a solar panel system for each housing building in the U.S. There are about 130 million, excluding skyscrapers. Buying a 5kWh solar panel system would cost about 30k in 2013. That’s 3.9 Trillion dollars for reaching 85% of peak load electric usage. You forget the costs of installation and the battery system in your calculation if solely buying the panels.

    Let’s also not forget real economics. As soon as the government becomes an active participant (moving from providing subsidies to providing the system), the cost of the entire project is likely to at least double because of the lousy bureaucracy. That’s a 7.8 trillion dollar initiative that does not take into account 1) Supply & Demand, 2) Yearly inflation.

    How long would it take to manufacture and install 130 million systems? Even considering breakthroughs in solar efficiency, the cost will, more likely than not, continue to increase.

    It would easily cost 10 trillion, or more.

    1. @Canshow, This article was simply intended to illustrate an interesting solar energy relativity. It was not intended as a blueprint for specific action. I was curious to know the equivalent solar panel space requirements to power the country (out of relative curiosity).

      Your notion is correct though, in that the costs of implementation would be high, and if .gov were to be involved – it would be even higher ;)

    2. 5 kW for $30,000? Already down to 10 kW for $20,000! Canadian! Installed! Grid connected!

      So that is like about $15,000 US$!

      Follow Gigafactory and Solar stories and comments on electrek.co for more info and discussion! I picked up some great leads there!

  20. Perhaps the day will come when roofing shingles will supplement PV. Iron Edison offers a storage battery with a longer life expectancy. It’s too bad that someone hasn’t come up with a way to utilize the wheels turning on America’s highways every day to produce a supplemental energy source.

  21. According to a 2008 analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, supplying all of the United States’ electricity needs with photovoltaic solar energy would require roughly 0.6 percent of America’s total land area or 1,948 square feet per person.

  22. We do not need battery system for nite time power, lets just take the first step and power our demands during daylight hours using solar. At nite, switch back to our conventional power grid. This simple step will extend our existing fossil fuel supply several hundred years since we will use half as much of that fossil power every day.

    1. You are correct. Utilizing the energy that lands on us freely from the Sun will extend our own planetary energy resorces…

  23. The numbers are irrelevant without including the energy storage that would be required to achieve independence from the grid. Something that most who dream of a solar powered home/country don’t consider until it’s too late. The other thing is the incremental cost of a solar system over and above the present costs also taking into account the rather short lifetime of solar systems (~20 years at best).

    Solar right now is just an expensive hobby practiced by first adopter citizens with money to burn and governments trying to garner votes through “social license” so in short it’s mainly a tool used in virtue signaling and nothing else

    1. It certainly is a hobby for some. However a solar powered system is highly advantageous for preparedness too. That’s my own personal primary reason. Self reliance is liberating.

      The exercise of calculating what I did above was simply out of curiosity – to get a ‘30,000 foot view’ or ‘feel’ for the big numbers as they relate to number of panels. Storage was not considered (on purpose).

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