There’s a lot of things to worry about when it comes to the earth’s climate, and it only makes sense to ask the big questions.

Like, why aren’t we just powering the entire earth with solar panels?

I can tell you that one of the reasons is probably cost. And oil companies putting up a fight.

But, what we’ll realize below, is that space is an even bigger issue.

Simply put, we’d need to take up ENORMOUS amounts of space in order to power the entire world by solar.

solar panel farm in the desert

How Many Solar Panels Would It Take To Power The World?

It would take 51.4 billion 350W solar panels to power the world!
Put another way, this is the equivalent of a solar power plant that covers 115,625 square miles.

The Facts

world electricity consumption 2017
Source

How Many Solar Panels To Power The World?

In 2017, the last year with updated data, the world consumed roughly 23,696 TWh of electricity according to the IEA.
This equates to 64.92 TWh on a daily basis.
Assuming an average of 3.5 hours of peak sunlight hours (this differs greatly based on where the solar panels would be, but we’re using a conservative average), that means we’ll need 18.54 TW of solar power.
If we used 350W solar panels, we’d need 51.428 BILLION solar panels.

Surface Area Requirement for Solar Panels to Power The World

A 1 MW solar PV power plant takes up roughly 4 acres of space.
We would need 74.16 million acres or about 115,625 square miles to build an 18.54 TW solar plant.

Real Life Example

A 1 MW solar farm in North Carolina runs on 5040 solar panels (195W and 200W), and takes up 4.8 acres.

It produces 1.7 million kWh per year.

The farm gets 5-6 hours of sunlight per day on average, compared to 3.5-4 hours for a fixed-array, which makes it more efficient than our example above.

Even so, if we replicated this particular farm in order to produce enough electricity to power the world, we would then require:

  • 92.7 billion solar panels
  • 54.1 million acres, or 84,531 square miles.

What does 51 billion solar panels or 115,625 square miles actually look like?

These numbers are so enormous that it can be hard to visualize just how big of a space you’d need for a solar panel farm of this size to power the entire world.

For comparison, the entire US is about 3,531,905 square miles.

So, hypothetically, we could power the world’s current electricity consumption by covering just 3.27% of the US with solar power plants.

That’s about the size of New Mexico (121,365 square miles) or Arizona (113,642 square miles), which is bigger than all but 5 states.

Here’s how big of a space we’d need compared to New Mexico:

solar panels over new mexico
Information sourced from daftlogic.com

Or, we could just cover the 11 smallest states with solar panels…and still not have enough room! If we covered the entirety of…

  • South Carolina
  • West Virginia
  • Maryland
  • Vermont
  • New Hampshire
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • Hawaii
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Rhode Island

…we’d still be about 4000 square miles short.

Sticking with states, a world-powering solar station would cover:

  • 20% of Alaska
  • 44% of Texas
  • 74% of California
  • 79% of Montana

What about other countries?

Our 115,625 square mile solar station is bigger than 121 countries, including:

  • Ecuador
  • New Zealand
  • UK
  • Ghana
  • Belarus
  • Cambodia
  • Uruguay
  • Greece
  • South Korea

See the rest here, starting with Burkina Faso.

What Else is 115,625 Square Miles?

  • 55,962,501 football fields
  • 54 Trillion Pokemon Cards
  • 4.6 Trillion 13″ Macbooks
  • A roughly 50 mile wide corridor stretching from southern California to Hawaii
  • 0.079% of the moon’s surface area

How Many Solar Panels Would It Take to Power The US?

Using the same calculations above, but replacing the world consumption (23,696 TWh) with US consumption (4,479 TWh), we learn that the US would require 3.5 TW of solar power (assuming 3.5 hours of sun on average).

That means that we’d need 10 billion 350W solar panels to electrify America.

That’s 19.5% of the entire world’s electricity consumption! (America’s population is about 4.25% of the entire world.)

In terms of surface area, using the roughly 4 acres for 1 MW of solar farm, it would take 21,913 square miles of solar to power America. That’s a little smaller than West Virginia, but still bigger than 9 other states.

How Much Solar Energy Does the World Currently Produce?

There is currently about 500 GW of solar power currently up and running.

That’s 2.76% of the total amount that we’d need to power the entire earth.

We’ve got a little bit of a ways to go!

However, Stanford researchers have recently released a report showing how 143 countries could transition 100% to renewables. You can read more about that here.

Is It Even Possible to Power the Whole World With Solar Panels?

Do you think the people in New Mexico would mind if we covered their entire state in solar panels?

If not, then sure it’s possible!

But even then, you’d need incredible battery storage capacity and you’d need to produce a heck of a lot more power because much would be lost in transmission to other parts of the world.

Although less fun, it’s more useful to consider whether each country or region could put together a massive solar plant.

The answer to that question is maybe, but even then, smart people like the Stanford researchers mentioned above seem to be more excited about the possibilities of wind power.

In the report, they suggest roughly 48% wind energy and roughly 45% solar energy. So, even in a 100% renewable energy grid, you’re not likely to need as much solar as we’ve talked about here.

As solar gets cheaper and more efficient, there’s no reason to think we couldn’t rely much more heavily on solar, especially since battery capacity and energy storage solutions are increasing rapidly.

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