Capture the Sun & Power America With Solar – Is There a Business Case?

black_solar_cellGuest essay by Philip Dowd

Whenever the subject of renewable energy comes up, the conversation usually turns to solar. You hear statements like: “The world receives more energy from the sun in one hour than the global economy uses in one year.”[a] You then ask yourself; “Why can’t we just capture the energy from the sun and solve our energy problem that way?” Why not, indeed?

Let’s suppose that we convert the entire American economy to “all-electric”, and we produce all of the electricity to power it from a solar facility. In other words, we stop burning carbon and capture the sun. What would this solar plant look like? How much would it cost? We can get a ballpark answer to both of these questions with a few assumptions and some simple calculations.

First we need to know how much electricity our solar power plant must generate. An analysis from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory[b] divides the US economy into four sectors – Residential, Commercial, Industrial and Transportation.


Total demand for energy from these sectors (in the box) is about 70 quadrillion BTU’s (or “quads”) per year. So, our solar power plant must reliably deliver the electric energy equivalent of 70 quads to run the US economy for one year, or 56*1012 Wh (56 Terawatt hours) of electricity per day[c].

Our solar facility would consist of a photovoltaic (PV) panel and a battery. (There are other forms of solar power, but PV is good for this purpose.) The PV panel would generate enough electricity during the day to power the economy and charge the battery, and the battery would power the economy at night. Our task is to calculate:

1. The size of the PV panel

2. The size of the battery

3. The cost of the whole thing.

The Photovoltaic Panel

Let’s assume the following:

1. The PV panel would be spread out in the Southwestern states, because that is the sunniest place in America[d].

2. We build in a 50% safety factor to handle any contingency

If we start with demand of 56 Terawatt hours of electricity per day and add a 50% safety factor, we find that we will then need a system that can produce about 83 TWh/day[e].

The easiest way to estimate the footprint of a solar facility of this size is to look at the operating experience of existing solar power plants. Here are several examples [f].

Facility Location Electricity Output/sq meter

Nellis Nevada 150 Wh/day

Beneixama Spain 160

Serpa Portugal 90

Solarpark Mühlhausen Bavaria 68

Kagoshima Nanatsujima Japan 170

The sample shows that actual output is in the 70-170 Wh/day per square meter range. If we assume 150 Wh/day-sq m for our power plant, then its foot print would be about 210,000 sq mi[g].

The Battery

For the battery we will use technology known as “Pumped Storage”[h].

This method stores energy in the form of potential energy of water, pumped from a lower elevation reservoir to a higher elevation reservoir. In our example, electric power from our solar facility produced during the day would be used to run the pumps and fill the upper reservoir. Then, at night, the stored water would be released through turbines to produce the electricity that would run the night time economy.


This is proven technology. “Pumped storage hydro (PSH) is the largest-capacity form of grid energy storage available. As of March 2012, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) reports that PSH accounts for more than 99% of bulk electric energy storage capacity worldwide, representing around 127,000 MW”h. There are about 50 pumped storage plants with more than 1,000 MW of capacity in operation around the world[i] .

In 2009 the United States had 21,500 MW of pumped storage generating capacity[j]. Many of these plants were built during the 1970’s and have therefore been operating for more than 30 years.

Two good examples of pumped hydro electric energy storage in the U.S. are:

1. The facility at Ludington, Michigan[k] is built on a bluff overlooking the east shore of

Lake Michigan. It was constructed in 1969-73.

2. The Bath County facility[l] is located in the northern corner of Bath County, Virginia, on the southeast side of the Eastern Continental Divide, which forms this section of the border between Virginia and West Virginia. It was constructed in 1977-85 and is currently the largest pumped storage facility in the world.

Here are the relevant specifications (from this spreadsheet[m] ):

Capacity Capital Cost Stored Energy Footprint

(MW) ($2014/W)[n] (GWh)[o] (Acres)

Ludington, MI 1,872 0.98 25.5 1,000

Bath County, VA 3,000 1.40 43.0 820

For the purposes of this anlysis, we assumed that the night time energy demand would be about half of the daily demand, or 41 TWh. If we fulfilled this requirement with pumped storage, we would need about 1,000 facilities like Bath County , VA, or about 1,640 like Ludington, MI[p] .

If we assume the average footprint of these facilities to be 1,000 acres, the total footprint would be about 2,600 sq mi[q] for the Ludington option and 1,300 sq mi[r] for the Bath County option.

Note that for the sake of simplicity this analysis does not include a factor for energy losses during the charge/discharge cycle. Overall, the pumping/generating cycle efficiency has increased pump-turbine generator efficiency by as much as 5% in the last 25 years, resulting in energy conversion or cycle efficiencies greater than 80% (MWH, 2009)[s]. Including this factor does not materially change the result.

What Would It Cost?

Assuming today’s technology and today’s costs, this power system would cost about $65 trillion to build.

The PV Panel

Utility-sector PV systems larger than 2,000 kW in size averaged $3.40/W of capacity in 2011[t]. The capacity of a solar power plant that could generate the required 83 TWh/day of electricity would be about 17 TW[u]. The installed cost of our facility would therefore be $3.40/W times 17 TW or about $60 trillion.

The Battery

If we use the actual construction costs of the two PSH projects above, the Bath County option would cost a total of about $5 trillion and the Ludington option would cost about $3.5 trillion[v].

A few comments

1) Putting the PV power facility in the Southwest makes sense from a solar energy point of view because this is the sunniest part of America. But, this strategy has two problems:

a. The Southwest, defined as southern CA + the southern tip of NV around Las Vegas + NM + the panhandles of TX and OK, constitutes about 400,000 sq mi[w]. Our facility would therefore cover about 50% of it!

b. If a major storm covered most (or worse, all) of this, electrical output would drop dramatically and the whole country would suffer.

2) Putting our PV power plant in the “Southern states”, defined as southern CA + southern tip of NV around Las Vegas + all of NM + all states east to the Atlantic Ocean, alleviates the storm risk scenario but puts much of the panel in states that are not as “sunny” as the Southwest, and so our PV power facility would have to be larger to account for that. Even without this expansion it would occupy about 22% of it[x].

3) Some people would say that much of the land in these states is “empty”; but others would say that it is wilderness or grazing land or farm land. It’s safe to say that either the Southwest or the Southern States strategy would provoke some real push-back.

4) PV Panels on houses. There are about 89 million houses in the US[y]. If the owners of every one of them installed 1,000 sq ft (e.g 20 ft by 50 ft) of PV panel on their roof, the total area would be about 3,200 sq mi., a small percentage of the needed area.

Additional Construction Costs

Building the solar power plant is not the only cost of capturing the sun.

1) Electrifying the economy. We simply assumed at the beginning that the entire economy has been “electrified”, so that all energy is now supplied in the form of electricity, but this in itself would be an enormous project. By far the largest part of this would involve the electrification of the transport sector. The chart above shows that transportation is the largest user of energy (38%) and that almost all of it comes in the form of petroleum. Electrifying this sector would mean abandoning the internal combustion engine and converting to electricity all cars, buses, trucks (especially tractor-trailers), ships, and the entire railroad network.

2) Re-building and expanding the entire national electrical grid. Today power plants are located close to the user. Major cities, e.g. Chicago, are surrounded by a network of power plants[z]. Our new solar system, however, would locate the power plants where the sun shines the most. So, in theory, much of it would be located in the Southwest, which is the sunniest part of America. This means that the solar-based grid would be much larger than present because it must transport electricity much larger distances, for example, from Arizona to New Jersey.

3) Developing a computer network to control the whole system, the so-called “smart grid”. The solar grid must be able to react to changes in the weather. Suppose we adopt the Southern States strategy. Further suppose that on Monday the Southwest is clear and the Southeast is cloudy. On that day huge amounts of electricity must move generally west to east. Then suppose that on Tuesday the Southwest is cloudy and the Southeast is clear. On that day huge amounts of the electricity must move generally east to west. This will be happening every day as weather systems move across America. The grid and control systems to handle this do not, today, exist.

Compare the “Solarization” of America With Other “Mega-Projects”

America is certainly capable of successfully sustaining large projects over long periods of time that require solutions to major engineering problems. Three examples are:

1. The Manhattan Project. The project to build the first atomic bomb spanned 1942-1946 and cost about $26 billion in 2014 dollars[aa].

2. Project Apollo. The project to put the first man on the moon spanned 1961-1972 and cost about $130 billion in 2014 dollars[bb].

3. The Interstate Highway System. This project was authorized in 1956 and was completed in 1991, 35 years later, at a cost of about $500 billion in 2014 dollars[cc].

These are three very successful projects. What were the keys to their success?[dd]

1. A perceived threat or reward that leads to public acceptance. The Manhattan project and Apollo project were both responses to perceived threats, which compelled policymaker support for these initiatives. The interstate highway system was perceived as an enormous jobs program that would also produce a big jump in economic productivity.

2. A clear goal. Each project had a clear goal – build the bomb, put a man on the moon by end of 1969, build the interstate highway system.

3. Government money that ensures success. All three projects were funded by government. For example, the Manhattan Project consumed about 1% of the federal budget during its life, and Project Apollo consumed about 2% during its life.

How does our solar project score on these three success factors?

1. Perceived threat or reward. Climate change and/or exhaustion of fossil fuels. But, does the American public buy in to this? Recent polls suggest that it does not.

2. A clear goal. Electrify the US economy and generate the electricity with a solar-based system. But, whereas the interstate highway system (for example) generated huge benefits to Americans, it is not clear if there are any near-term benefits from, for example, converting transportation from carbon to solar-produced electricity.

3. Government money to ensure success. The government’s role in all three projects was to provide the funding. But, given the public’s lack of support, the huge amounts of money required, and the fiscal shape in which governments at all levels find themselves, governments today are in no position to fund this entire project.

What To Do?

In order to adopt solar power on a large scale today we must confront four problems associated with the technology.

1. The sun is a relatively low density energy source. Even in a sunny place like Arizona, it delivers only about 200 W/sq m over an average day[ee].

2. Today’s PV panels are inefficient at converting this energy to electricity. A typical low-cost PV panel will convert only 15-20% of the sun’s energy to electricity.

3. Intermittency. The sun shines for only about half of the 24 hour day, and is often obscured by clouds.

4. Cost. The construction cost of a solar PV facility is about $3.50/W vs about $1.00/W for a gas-fired power plant[ff]. Furthermore, whereas a gas-fired plant produces electricity 24/7 rain or shine, a solar plant produces electricity only during the daylight hours.

The efficiency of PV panels continues to improve, and panels with 20% efficiency are coming onto the market[gg], but the theoretical limit of the PV technology in use today is 31%[hh], and getting there has been agonizingly slow. More research is required to improve the efficiency of PV panels and any other technology that converts the sun’s energy to electricity.

The sun’s intermittency issue requires development of grid scale electricity storage systems that are sufficient (in this example) to power the entire economy during the night. Many new technologies are currently under development. As with PV panel efficiency, more research is required to develop these new technologies for electricity storage.

The capital cost of PV power plants is falling as the cost of PV panels drops. Today, PV panels cost about $.74/W, one one-hundredth of the cost in 1977[ii]! But the PV panel is only one component of the total cost of a complete solar power plant. The so-called “non-module” costs, e.g. inverters, mounting hardware, labor, permitting and fees, overhead, taxes, installer profit, etc, now make up at least two thirds of the total installed cost[jj]. Further reductions in total cost will require significant reductions in non-module costs. The total cost of a PV power plant today is still about four times the cost of a gas-fired equivalent, and it generates electricity for only half the day.

Finally, as with any energy plan, we must continue to work on energy efficiency. The chart above shows that of the 70 quads of energy supplied to the economy, about 47%[kk] of them are “rejected”, i.e. lost. Improving energy efficiency (BTU/$ GDP) is a must, regardless of the way forward.

A Final Comment

The intent of this exercise is to arrive at a ballpark estimate of what it would take to stop burning carbon and “Capture the Sun”. There is obviously a large margin of error, plus or minus, in all of it. One thing is certain. Eventually we homo sapiens will consume all of the planet’s supply of carbon. Long before that time we must develop an alternative to burning that carbon.

It’s a good bet that solar will eventually be a major part of our energy equation. The good news about the sun is that it is:

1. For all practical purposes an inexhaustible source of energy.

2. Free.

3. Available to everyone. No country can seize control of the sun and deny it to others.

But, it is also true that solar power today supplies only about two tenths of one percent of the energy to run the U.S. economyb. It is easy to see why when we compare the economics of solar with other options. In the exercise above I estimate the cost of building a system to power today’s economy with energy from the sun at about $65 trillion. Doing the same thing with gas-fired technology would cost about $4 trillion[ll], about 6% of the cost of solar.

Remember that this whole exercise has used today’s technology and today’s costs. Both of these should improve over time, but until they do the business case for a major push into solar does not look good.



[a] ”Solar Energy, A New Day Dawning?”, Nature 443, 19-22 (7 September 2006) doi:10.1038/443019a; Published online 6 September 2006

[b] Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory –

[c] 70 x 1015 BTU/yr = 1.9 x 1014 BTU/day = 56 x 1012 Wh/day = 56 TWh/day


[e] PV Panel Capacity

Desired output = 56 TWh/day

50% safety factor raises this to 83 TWh/day

[f] Power Plant Footprint

Nellis Powerplant (Nevada) = 30 GWh/yr on 140 acres = 150 Wh/day per sq meter,

Beneixama (Spain) = 30 GWh/yr on 500,000 sq m = 160 Wh/day per sq meter,

Serpa (Portugal) = 20 GWh/yr on 600,000 sq m = 90 Wh/day per sq meter, p48

Solarpark Mühlhausen (Bavaria) = 17,000 kWh/day on 25 hectacre = 68 Wh/day per sq meter, p41

Kagoshima Nanatsujima (Japan) = 22,000 households @ 3,600 kWh/household on 1.3 million sq m = 170 Wh/day-sq m

[g] Required output = 83 TWh/day so this divided by 150 Wh/day-sq m = 210,000 sq mi





Ludington Pumped Storage Plant, Ludington, MI


[m] Some examples of pumped storage facilities. All can be found in Wikipedia:

[n] The equation here is Capital Cost at time of construction x adjustment for inflation ÷ Capacity

For Bath = $1,600 mil x 2.6 ÷ 3,000 MW = $1.38 /W (inflation adjustment is for the period 1981 – 2014)

For Ludington = $315 mil x 5.8 ÷ 1,872 MW = $0.98 /W (inflation adjustment is for the period 1971 – 2014)

For inflation adjustment use this site:

[o] The equation here is Capacity x Time to Empty Upper Reservoir

For Bath = 3,000 MW x 14.3 hours = 43.0 GWh

For Ludington = 1,872 MW x 13.6 hours = 25.5 GWh

[p] The equation here is Demand ÷ Stored Energy

For Bath = 41 TWh ÷ 43.0 GWh = 953 or about 1,000 “Bath-like” facilities

[q] 1,640 x 1,000 acres x 0.0016 sq mi/acre = 2,600 sq mi

[r] 1,000 x 820 acres x 0.0016 sq mi/acre = 1,300 sq mi



Original Source is: Tracking the Sun, an annual PV cost-tracking report produced by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab)


According to this chart, the capacity factor for solar power plants installed so far in the U.S. is about 20%. Therefore, the Capacity of a solar plant to power America would be = electricity demand/day ÷ 24 hrs/day ÷ 20% capacity factor

= 83 TWh/day ÷ 24 h/day ÷ 0.2 = 17 TW

[v] Capacity of pumped storage = night time demand ÷ 12 hrs = 41 TWh ÷ 12 h = 3.4 TW

Capital cost for Bath = $1.40/W, so Bath option CapEx = 3.4 TW x $1.40 ≈ $4.8 trillion

Capital cost for Ludington = $0.98/W, so Ludington option CapEx = 3.4 TW x $0.98 ≈ $3.3 trillion

[w] An estimate from Google Maps

[x] NV+AZ+NM+TX+OK+LA+MS+AL+GA+SC+FL ≈ 1 million sq mi according to Wikipedia

[y] US Census Bureau





[dd] Analysis in this section is based on this article by Deborah D. Stine, PhD, now at Carnegie Mellon University:

[ee] MacKay, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, p46

[ff] U.S. Energy Information Administration, Updated Capital Cost Estimates for Utility Scale Electricity Generating Plants”, April 12, 2013,, Table 1


[hh] Shockley-Queisser limit.


[jj], graph on p14

[kk] From the chart on page 1:

Total energy to drive the U.S. economy (in the box) = 69.5 quads

Total energy input = total energy output

Total energy output = rejected energy + energy services = 32.5 quads + 37.0 quads

Therefore rejected energy = 32.5 / 69.5 = 46.8%

[ll] 83 TWh/day required to run the economy

Assume the capacity factor for these gas-fired plants = 90%

Then capacity = 83 ÷ 24 ÷ 0.9 = 3.8 TW

Cost to build = 3.8 TW x $1/W ≈ $ 4 trillion


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Bloke down the pub

Household heating is included in the electrification for your workings. If a new build house is well designed, then the combination of south facing windows and high levels of insulation can provide most of the heating that a property requires. This can be done without all the drawbacks that you report and should be cost neutral.

John Brisbin

In the article ‘A few comments’ it says “The Southwest, defined as southern CA + the southern tip of NV around Las Vegas + NM + the panhandles of TX and OK, constitutes about 400,000 sq mi[w].”
Arizona would probably be happy to avoid being papered with solar panels, but should be legitimately included in the definition of ‘The Southwest’. (I know a few French fellows who seem to believe parts of Arizona are in Texas. Looks all the same from there.)
Otherwise, even with ballpark numbers, it is really useful to understand the size of the ballpark we are talking about. Thanks for the effort.


Very good breakdown! Thanks!
Here in Germany the solar+wind subsidy fee slapped on to the price of a kWh has driven up electricity prices so much that it starts to become interesting to run a solar panel not even to harvest subsidies but simply to reduce one’s own bill – as a kind of escape from Big government’s price fixing!


This is done every day and has been for Billions of years. Photosynthesis.
Plants grow and over time are converted into coal or oil or gas. Use those!!!!
CO2 is not the problem politicians and greens are.


The battery concept should not only look at the surface area needed, but also the height and water depth requirements. You need to find the significantly elevated area you can flood to the needed depth by building a realistically small dam. My understanding was this type of location was both not common and increasingly being protected by environmental groups.

Walt D.

Three other things:
1) Transmission – how do you get the electricity from Arizona to Bangor, Maine?
2) Back up Natural Gas Units. All intermittent power needs to be back up units.
3) Environmental impact costs associated with the projects.

Very much appreciate the analysis. I will keep this. Thanks.

Thanks for this post!
This analysis highlights the utter futility of “going solar”. The costs you mention are only part of the costs. For example, what is the “cost” of losing a major part of the country because it is covered in solar cells? What is the “cost” of trying to build all those “batteries” all over the nation? Water and land is a scarce resource you know.
Knowledgeable economists (not fools who write for the NYT) always tell you to look beyond the easily seen and apparent costs and root out the “unseen” consequences of your proposed actions. The “unseen” in this scenario would overwhelm even the outrageous Trillions that you calculate for the project. (and has any government project ever come in on budget?)


A large chunk of the energy requirement is to heat stuff up. Solar heat collectors are around 90% efficient these days. This would alter the equation somewhat significantly. e.g. reduce the land area by 4x. Interesting exercise tho’. I also think the 50% reduction or change for night time energy use is not a good guestimate – I would think energy use at night, for approx 8 hrs would be a tenth or even less than the daytime use. thanx

Danny V.

@ bloke – And it would take 200+, if ever, years to convert the existing house inventory to passive house design. Good thought, but will never be a player for a long time.
I am planning a rural home and have looked at the heating options in depth. With reliability and cost in mind, I keep coming back to propane and wood for heat, with a passive, super insulated house design. Nat gas is not available. Solar cells just don’t make the grade in my list of must have’s for power supply.

John West

”its foot print would be about 210,000 sq mi”
For perspective: assuming every house in America (~130 million) installed 1000 sq. ft. of solar panels that would come to a total of only 4,663 sq. mi. (0.0002% of 210,000 sq. mi.).

The SunShot Vision Study:
The DOE did a fantasy “what if” study based on solar power costs being reduced 75% by 2020 and the tries to make that a reality by shoveling taxpayer dollars down sewer holes to make it come true.


@john west 4,663/210,000 = .0002% ?

Larry Geiger

The only really good way to do solar is space based. Transmission back to earth is certainly a problem, but it’s really the only good way to collect solar.

William C Rostron

Something else to consider, that I don’t often see addressed: using that much land for solar electriciay production precludes its use for something else, like agriculture, or wildlife habitat. The environmental effects of such a plan are enormous and certainly beyond acceptable by several orders of magnitude. There are also unavoidable effects from transferring huge amounts of energy from one place (where it used to be used to be part of nature) to somewhere else.
There is no free lunch.

Alan McIntire

“johnmarshall says:
July 31, 2014 at 4:20 am
This is done every day and has been for Billions of years. Photosynthesis.
Plants grow and over time are converted into coal or oil or gas. Use those!!!!”
And as we all notice l, iving, plants are not very active- they don’t swing their limbs to whack animals that are trying to eat them- the plants don’t have enough energy.


One word: planes.


Sorry Mr. Dodd Your described system does not work. You need 56 TWh/day electricity plus 41 TWh/day to charge Your battery system, makes 97 Twh/day but Your capacity is only 83 TWh/day. So you can not deliver enough electricty to the consumers and charge the batteries.

DirkH says:
July 31, 2014 at 4:19 am

it starts to become interesting to run a solar panel not even to harvest subsidies but simply to reduce one’s own bill – as a kind of escape from Big government’s price fixing!

I think this is exactly why they do it, to convert a large portion of the population to “wanting” to pay for a solar system for their home.

The obvious alternative power source is nuclear. For those who think solar and wind are the only
inexhaustible power sources, consider nuclear to be inexhaustible as well. This is due to the coming commercialization of fast neutron reactors and the ability to extract uranium from the oceans at lower costs. And practically every nation has access to the ocean, so no one could ever control this resource. These fast reactors can extract the vast majority of energy from uranium , not just the one or two percent that current reactors consume. Just the nuclear wastes we now have can provide all of the electricity we currently consume for a 1000 years.
The above analysis requires approximately 2300 gigawatts of capacity. Approximately 1800 nuclear plants of current design size could produce this amount of power and cost roughly $10 trillion dollars. Of course, 100 of these nuclear plants are already in operation. If 9/10th of a cent per kWhr of power produced by a nuclear plant were paid to the govt, the plant could repay the cost of is construction (roughly $5.5 bilion) within its nominal 60 year lifspan. Building this number of plants would reduce build costs significantly, although I wouldn’t guess how much.
Current and future nuclear plant designs will also allow for load following (especially small moduar reactors) which, when coupled with some degree of pumped storage, would virtually eliminate the need for low carbon peak generators beyond hydro. It’s also true that solar panels have a useful lifespan of only several decades before needing to be replaced, whereas nuclear plants now being built are guaranteed to have a lifespan of at least 60 years, probaby closer to 80 years, during which time solar panels would have to be replaced probably 4 times. Not counting the cooling reservoir, the physical footprint for a Westinghouse AP1000 plant is roughly 50 acres.

Chris Wright

I’m fairly confident that the future will be dominated by a source that works the same way as solar, and that’s fusion (of course the sun is powered by fusion). The problem is that practical fusion power has been 30 years in the future – for the last 50 years. But great progress is being made.
Very likely we will see large-scale fusion generation towards the end of the century. By then the idea of solar or wind power will be just a bad joke. Fusion will give us abundant, clean, reliable and cheap energy, most of which renewables can never give us.


A couple of thoughts on solar:
Oil and gas manages to circumvent the problem of low solar energy input by stretching out time (T) in the way it captures and stores solar energy-it captures solar energy in chemical bonds over long periods of time assisted by organic processes and then crustal tectonic processes; this is largely why the relative energy output is much higher than normal solar. For solar to be effective something similar must occur, otherwise the amount of energy captured per unit of space and time is just far too low.
Possible very speculative breakthroughs:
1) a biochemical/organic reaction which proceeds alongside solar energy input, and adds to the overall effect. This sort of thing is not unknown in nature. Oil and gas itself is initially formed by organic photosynthesis driven by solar, prior to subsequent energy pathways.
2) Some kind of time dilation/circumvention in the way the energy is captured and stored, the same sort of way oil and gas captures and stores solar energy but over long periods of time compared to when it is used.
3) Some kind of space dilation/circumvention in the way energy is captured and stored, to increase energy per unit of space, this is the basic idea behind concentrated solar.
4) A rare chemical input reaction such as occurs associated with certain types of spontaneous nuclear breakdown, which proceeds when specific certain conditions are reached; i.e. some kind of weak thermonuclear reaction which proceeds under solar input. These sort of reactions are known to exist but only in very rare laboratory conditions. None are known to be commercially viable at present, but it isn’t impossible that some kind of weak nuclear energy source/spontaneous reaction can be found which can also be utilised.
Another conceptual example of an unusual but very weak energy source (and not nuclear ) is where phosphorous glows-this is where electrons are giving out light whilst jumping down to a lower energy shell/level, this energy is very weak, but so is gravity distortion such as on Mercury due to the effects of relativity, the possibility exists that such a phenomenon can be utilised in certain very specific conditions to produce much larger amounts of controlled energy. Nobody thought that glowing light and gamma rays from thorium and uranium were related to an energy source that under specific conditions could be used to produce an astonishing amount of energy in a chain reaction such as in an A bomb.
I’m an optimist, and believe that there may be sources/methods of utilising energy which are not yet known which can be game changers. But these would have to be very much outside the box, otherwise they would already be here.


Assuming this crackpot scheme was ever put into practice, have their been any calculations of how it would affect the weather? Surely if you are taking 25% of the solar energy out of the climate circulation that’s going to do something to the local and regional climates??


Thorium is the big one. China, India and others are getting into it big time and will be streets ahead of everyone with energy production. Then people will be asking just who is forcing the energy market to be the way it is.


If the transmission lines run thousands of miles, then transmission loss will be huge. That is one of the main reason power stations are distributed. The system would have to be distributed into at least 4 or 5 areas to avoid losing 30-40% of the power to transmission line loss. Far better idea is to develop things like Thorium power and better designed conventional nuclear.

M Courtney

The sun is a relatively low density energy source. Even in a sunny place like Arizona, it delivers only about 200 W/sq m over an average day

All energy comes from the Sun (except a bit of geothermal and the nuclear power, of course).
To be economic it has to be concentrated; channelled by river valleys, compressed underground for thousands of years or just very close to where it is needed.
The capture of energy is like hunter-gathering. You both go to the waterhole and get the good stuff or you set traps all over the place.
Renewables (except hot-springs, rivers and estuaries) are traps set everywhere.
• But they need to be built to for getting the goodies (the costs of being everywhere).
• But they need to be travelled to maintenance (the costs of being everywhere).
• They may not get any energy (they aren’t aimed)
• They cost resources to make everywhere (they aren’t aimed)
So, maybe if we get a step change in technology… maybe circling the Sun with a Dyson Sphere… maybe then. But not now.

The usual safety factor in large electric power generation systems was 20% before deregulation. After deregulation it was reduced to about 10%. Are you making it 50% to allow for clouds etc.?


As noted above, you failed to look at the issue of energy transmission. This is not surprising — it is the brachiosaurus in the room where all of the other issues are “just money”. The brachiosaurus busts the room altogether, at least so far.
The practical limit on the distance we can transmit electrical power is around 300 miles. This isn’t a “sharp” limit — it is just that the fraction of the generated electrical power being burned in the transmission lines increases as one makes the runs longer (especially to a high-draw locale) until you are spending more to heat the transmission line than you are to provide power to businesses and houses. Limiting transmission line distances to 100 miles is better than 200 is better than 300 and 400 is just too much.
This limit is not particularly scalable. We already transmit at roughly 1 to 1.5 million volts. In order to manage this, we have to build giant transmission towers — each one 50 to 100 meters high — festooned with arms at the end of which dangle meter-long ceramic insulators, all to keep the thick, hollow, primary conductors far enough away from a path to ground that they don’t arc over to it in a rainstorm and blow the grid in a burst of magnificent human-generated lightning. To stretch (say) 350 miles to 3500 — to get electrical power from California to Maine — we would need to go to (say) 15 million volts, towers several hundred meters high, and ten meter long insulators, and because of nonlinearities galore, it isn’t clear that even that would work.
I haven’t studied this in complete detail (this is all riffing off of the top of my head based on the fact that I teach the physics of all of the above and have done a bit of research on the issue) but I suspect that there are already deal-killing nonlinearities preventing lines any longer from being built. For example, the transformer that produces the million volt secondary has to be isolated from grounds just as completely as the transmission line — this is accomplished with oils that have a higher dielectric breakdown than air and careful engineering. Can this engineering be scaled by another factor of 10? Maybe, but I doubt it.
Or, consider that each power line generates what is called an “image” in the conducting ground underneath. Basically, the line acts like an antenna and couples to “receivers” like the ground so that one doesn’t JUST heat the transmission line, one heats the ground, one radiates power away in the form of radio energy. The wavelength at 60 Hz is enough longer than 100 miles that it isn’t a “great” antenna. However, the wire becomes a quarter wave antenna at around 1250 kilometers, and a half wave antenna at 2500 kilometers. The radiation resistance goes up, and a significant fraction of the energy is literally radiated away into space. How significant? I’d have to do the whole computation but it isn’t safe to assume that it is negligible as the length scales up, or that the ground coupling remains acceptable as the length (and transmission voltage) are scaled up.
A last factor is this — if you build 3500 mile loops across the Earth’s surface, the next time there is a significant CME — coronal mass ejection — event, a solar flare directed at the Earth, it could and very likely would blow the entire, expensive, mission critical grid in a single instant of truly massive overvoltage. We already blow parts of the much smaller grid when a big CME makes a direct hit. A direct hit with a truly continent spanning fully coupled delivery system would instantly return us to the dark (pre-electric) ages for months or years. A single, undiversified, spatially coherent generation system becomes vulnerable to all sorts of ills — this is just one of them. What if Yellowstone thinks about becoming active and covers the southwest with clouds of ash? Dark age, again. If it were winter, Maine would simply die if they’d come to rely on Arizona electricity and it went away for the next century.
In my (moderately well informed) opinion, solar can only become a viable single source of electricity if/when we can transmit electrical power not 3000 miles but at least 10,000 miles, with even less loss than we currently experience at 300, and in such a way that CMEs are not a civilization-killing risk. Practically speaking, the only physics I know of that MIGHT support this is the development of high-current high-temperature superconductors, implemented as continent-spanning underground waveguides or low-voltage (or even DC) transmission lines. And note that this isn’t really physics, it is science fiction. If we could do this, we already would be as the payoff would be enormous. If we built a heavily redundant, EMP/CME proof 10,000+ mile grid, we wouldn’t locate all of the solar plants in one place, we’d build them all over the southern temperate zone and the dry/desert parts of the tropics, and if we could stretch the lines out to 20,000 miles we wouldn’t need storage, we’d just run on the Sahara at night (for example).
This isn’t a matter of money. It isn’t clear that we can sanely transmit electricity 3500 miles for any amount of money, at least using the technology of the existing grid, let alone the 10 to 20,000 miles we really need to be able to transmit it to make solar a viable single source. Assertions to the contrary involve science fiction assumptions or non-existent engineering that are blithely skimmed over in any sort of public debate on the issue.
Solar does make a good deal of sense on individual rooftops, where in many parts of the country or world it is already a break-even to win-a-bit proposition compared to buying power from the existing heat-generation grid, a household at a time. When the surplus is sold back into the grid, it ekes out fossil fuel supplies and over time could drop the cost of electricity in general. Although it is still science fiction as well, a much more believable breakthrough in local storage technology could even make many homes semi-self-sufficient, especially if we use efficient technologies in those homes for e.g. lighting, cooling, heating. And what individual homes can do at break even, individual power companies can do locally at win-a-bit, and they are doing it — local solar grids are going up everywhere driven not by law or policy per se, but because power companies can make money from the grids in saved fuel and the ability to scale up daytime power to business without building expensive new heat generation plants.
Solar won’t need a massive national project to implement in this way. As solar PV cell costs continue (we might hope) to drop, and we get some economies of scale on the rest of the PV solar hardware and perhaps some modest, believable, bumps from supporting technology and engineering based on existing physics, it will simply become cheaper to build houses with their own PV array on the roof as standard practice, amortize the cost into the mortgage, and drop the cost of electricity to the owner from $200+/month for power purchased from the grid to $100 in their mortgage. Power companies will similarly find it much cheaper to build large local grids within their existing distribution range and throttle down their coal-burning plants during sunny days. It won’t be much use in Maine, but south of the Mason-Dixon line it is likely to be a win almost everywhere if installed solar halves in price, a big win if it halves again.
Which is as it should be. People will look out for their own best interest. If solar is in their own best interest from a purely economic point of view, why WOULDN’T they implement it? I’ve been seriously considering it because — even without subsidy — it is very close to break even on a 15 year amortization. That is just a hair too long, and the capital outlay is a hair too large, and long term solar cell reliability and accountability (using Chinese cells) is a hair too uncertain, so I haven’t bit the bullet, but it’s not like the investment is insanely out of line with the substantial investment already required for high efficiency air conditioning and heating systems, which have similar amortization of cost vs savings. My interest is also the interest of my power company and they get much better economies of scale — so even before I do it myself at home, it isn’t unlikely that they’ll cover a square kilometer or two with solar cells so that they can sell me 10 year amortized electricity at a lower price and still make a profit from it. No need for a “strategic” national policy or investment in anything but science, research and development, and perhaps pilot proof-of-concept projects to demonstrate cost-efficiency and scalability.

Putting it in perspective, at 210,000 sq mi, the solar array would need to cover most of Arizona and New Mexico, and at 2600 sq mi, the storage lake would need to cover an area about the size of Delaware.
Then we have to consider the impacts of the changes in albedo of the surface.

Jason Joice MD

I noticed one giant issue with the analysis. There was no accounting for the relative difference in efficiencies between internal combustion engine transportation and electric transportation. The bulk of the “transportation” block above is going to be from typical internal combustion engines. If those were converted to electric transportation, the efficiency would go from roughly 30% to roughly 90%. That portion, 26.7 quads, would suddenly be 8.9 quads. So the initial 70 quads needed to power the US becomes 52 quads. This decreases the entire calculation by roughly 25%. There are a number of other inefficiencies throughout the entire system of using carbon based fuels that would be immediately eliminated by “going electric”.
I agree with the sentiment of this article and its general conclusion that solar energy alone to power our entire economy is currently “pie in the sky”, but we need to be as accurate as possible in our analysis.

it generates electricity for only half the day.
Four to six hours in the summer. Worse in the winter.


It’s impossible to overestimate the pushback from envirogroups. The 2.2B$ Ivanpah Solar plant was built on what appeared to be the ideal “total desert” wasteland. It was sunny, but appeared totally devoid of life and use for any other purpose. It was vigorously opposed by green groups because of their perceived impact on some desert tortoise.

John West

neillusion says:
“@john west 4,663/210,000 = .0002% ?”
LOL – (pre-coffee): =2%

The capital cost of PV power plants is falling as the cost of PV panels drops.

True but only because massive government subsidies have resulted in an over-saturated market. A large project would cause dramatic cost increases.

The other Ren

What about the desert Tortoise? With all the energy being taken out of the desert, what will happen to the micro and macro climates there? Will Phoenix become Minneapolis?

Eustace Cranch

What is the cost in chemical pollution making millions of tons of photovoltaic cells?
Not pretty, I expect.


rgbatduke says:
July 31, 2014 at 5:46 am
This limit is not particularly scalable. We already transmit at roughly 1 to 1.5 million volts.
Pretty sure the highest US voltages are 765 kV, and only in American Electric Power service-regions. 500 kV is the highest otherwise. 1 million volts+ is employed in other countries, tho.

Michale Kelly

The must read on this subject is by Pedro A Prieto and Charles A S Hall: ‘Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Investment’, Springer 2013. It is a discussion of the solar power in Spain from 2005-9, where all the required real-world numbers are available as a matter of public record.. They show that 40% of all the useful energy is needed to make, install and maintain the solar power system over 25 years, with the cost of the solar cells themselves already only 30% of the cost. They cite other work that shows that a civilized society that can support the creative arts needs an energy system with an energy return on investment of order 10, not 2.5!


rgbatduke: “However, the wire becomes a quarter wave antenna at around 1250 kilometers, and a half wave antenna at 2500 kilometers. The radiation resistance goes up, and a significant fraction of the energy is literally radiated away into space.”
What a great tidbit. Independently of how significant the effect is, it’s one I had never thought of. Great stuff.
With regard to long-distance transmission, here’s a far-out-there scheme. Arthur D. Little’s Peter Glaser and others figured out the economics of microwave power transmission in their solar-power-satellite work. I assume it’s not practical to have a network of satellites relay the power around by microwave. But, as long as we’re talking about blue-sky stuff . . .

Bruce Cobb

Sorry, but the idea that solar will ever be a major player for our energy needs is laughable. Some type of nuclear, perhaps thorium, is far more likely.


NJ raised its electric rates 50% some years back to help pay for the goal of having 20% of the electricity produced from renewable resources. Strangely, hydropower doesn’t count as ‘renewable’. Most of the green power has been solar. So after years of paying higher electric rates I looked up the total power produced (I think the latest data was for year 2012) by solar. It is still under 1%.
NJ might reach its 20% goal. Not from expanding green energy, but making power so expensive people are too poor to keep the lights on and refrigerator running. By default, that little bit of solar and wind will be 20% of the very pricey power supply.


Eustace Cranch: Your are correct that solar cells requires some pretty nasty stuff to make. China leads the market because they just dump the waste instead of paying to treat it. The result is an environmental disaster.

Robert of Ottawa

We have an almost inexhaustible supply of coal and nuclear power. What’s the problem?


Add the cost of water to keep the PV panels clean. Dirty panels have a considerable drop in power conversion.

John G.


Robert of Ottawa

Darn. Hit [CR] too soon. This post does demonstrate what an idiotically huge undertaking this would be. Also not factored in is the loss of economic activity due to the solar array using up the land, nor the ecological cost which is always conveniently ignored by the Eco-loons.


Pretty clear case for nuclear.


I have said for some time that the best entry point initially for a conversion to solar is at the household level. It makes the most sense because the costs of transmission are eliminated. Another benefit is that it produces its energy at exactly the point when it is needed most in an average house, when the AC is running. That accounts for the worst of the summer electrical spike in electricity use. Solar panels help this one other way as well, since the suns energy is greatly reduced getting to the house it will take less energy to cool it.

CC Squid

I calculated the cost of installing solar and wind to power my home. The initial cost of a 10kw power system came to about $48k. Since propane and electricity costs me about $2.5k a year, I determined that I would be either transferred or dead before the project paid for itself. Remember, solar panels, batteries and wind generators have a finite life time.

David Schofield

If you put the transmission lines just under ground, you could build houses on top of them and they’d have permanent underfloor heating! Now where do I apply for a research grant ;-)!?