David Anthony’s Last Question – Can We Power the US Solely off of Solar?

By Tao Zheng, with David Anthony, an active cleantech venture capitalist, who passed away in April 2012.

 The sun is the champion of all energy sources, in terms of capacity and environmental impact. The sun provides earth with 120,000 terawatt (TW) energy, compared to technical potential energy capacity of single digit TWs from other renewable sources, such as wind, geothermal, biomass and hydroelectric. More energy from the sun hits the earth in one hour than all of the energy consumed on our planet in entire year. In the last blog, we estimated that the technical potential of electricity generation from rooftop photovoltaics (PV) can take over 1/3 of U.S. electricity consumption demand. The next question is: can we power the U.S. solely by solar energy, technically? The answer will rely on development of utility-scale solar farms and energy storage solutions.

Assuming the rest 2/3 of U.S. electricity demand can be fulfilled by utility-scale PV solar farms, we can estimate how much land required to install such solar farm systems. The total U.S. electricity demand in 2009 was 3,953 TWh with 1% annual growth projection in next 25 years. Two third of U.S. electricity demand is about 2,635 TWh. The PV power density is calculated with a weight-averaged module efficiency using market share for the three most prevalent PV technologies today: crystalline silicon, cadmium telluride, and CIGS. The resulting PV power density is 13.7 MW/million ft2, assuming an average module efficiency of 18.5% in 2015. If we assume 10 hours/day and 200 days/year with sunshine, the annual available sunshine time is 2,000 hours. The total land required for solar farms to generate 2,635 TWh, can be calculated as:

Total Land Required = Total Energy Generated / PV power density / Annual available sunshine time

                                 = 2,635,000/13.7/2000 = 96.2 ×109 ft2 = 8,937 km2 @ 100 × 100 km

Therefore, to generate energy equivalent to 2/3 of U.S. electricity demand, we need to install solar panels in a tract of land with size of 100 by 100 km, the area about 0.1% of U.S. land. Technically, to provide electricity for entire U.S. demand, we only need to cover PV-accessible residential and commercial rooftop with solar panels and install solar farms in desert area equivalent to 0.1% U.S land. In addition to rooftop and desert, there are many opportunities for installing PV on underused real estate, such as parking structure, airports, and freeway margins. PV can virtually eliminate carbon emissions from the electric power sector.

In comparison, Nathan Lewis, professor at Caltech, predicted a solar farm with land size of 400 by 400 km to generate 3 TW energy to power entire America. The represented area is about 1.7% of U.S. land size, comparable to the land devoted to the nation’s numbered highways. As shown in Figure 1, the red square represents the amount of land need for a solar farm to match the 3 TW of power demand in the U.S. Of the 3 TW energy, only 10% represents electricity demand, and the rest represents other energy needs, such as heating and automobile. Thus, Lewis’ calculation is consistent with our estimation: 10,000 km2 solar farms can generate enough electricity to fulfill 2/3 U.S. demand.

Figure 1. Solar Land Area Requirement for 3 TW Solar Energy Capacity to Power Entire U.S. Energy Demand. (Source: Prof. Nathan Lewis group at Caltech).

One of big challenges using solar to power U.S. grid is intermittency of sunlight. Solar energy is not available at night, and the variable output of solar generation causes voltage and frequency fluctuations on power network. Energy storage technology can smooth the output to meet electricity demand pattern. There are many grid energy storage technologies, from stationary battery to mechanical storage methods. Pumped hydro technology is clearly a better choice for solar energy storage, due to its high energy capacity, low cost, and public safety assurance.

For solar to have a dominant role in the electric power generation mix, in addition to power storage infrastructure, upgrading America’s transmission grid is required. In contrast to traditional electricity generation, solar power collections are distributed across numerous rooftops or centralized in utility-scale farms. Distributed solar requires grid operators to install smart grid technology to monitor power supply and demand and balance thousands of individual generators with central power plants. The current century-old transmission grid needs to be upgraded with high-voltage lines to carry electricity from remote solar farms to consumers. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), signed into law by President Obama in 2009, has directed $40 billion to accelerate the grid infrastructure transformation.

The U.S. photovoltaic market has been growing quickly in recent years. In 2010, the U.S. installed 887 megawatts (MW) of grid-connected PV, representing 104% growth over the 435 MW installed in 2009. Current trends indicate that a large number of utility-scale PV power plants are in the south and southwest areas, such as in the sunny deserts of California, Nevada and Arizona. For example, the Copper Mountain Solar Facility in Boulder City, Nevada, is one of the U.S. largest solar PV plants with 48 MW capacity, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. One of the U.S. Largest Solar Plants, the Copper Mountain Solar Project with 48 MW photovoltaic in Boulder City, Nevada.

Historically, solar PV deployment has been limited by economic factors, since solar energy is too expensive to compete with traditional fossil fuels, due to lack of economies of scale. However, the cheapest solar cells are now being produced for as little as 70¢ per watt. They are selling for about $1.26 per watt, with prices expected to drop to $1.17 next year. Most anticipate the price of solar module, such as thin film, will hit 50¢ per watt within four or five years. First Solar, the world’s largest maker of thin-film solar panels, has told investors that production costs will range between 52¢ and 63¢ per watt by 2014. When companies can produce solar photovoltaic modules for less than 50¢ per watt, solar energy will reach grid parity. Grid parity refers to the point at which the cost of solar electricity rivals that of traditional energy sources, such as coal, oil, or nuclear. The solar module price drop is driven by cheaper manufacturing costs, lower costs for such crucial raw materials as silicon, and rapidly improving technology. A recent study even claims solar grid parity is already here today, based on a legitimate levelized cost of energy (LCOE), calculated the cost in $/kwh. The value of LCOE is determined by the choice of discount rate, average system price, financing method, average system lifetime and degradation of energy generation over the lifetime. Figure 3 illustrates the effect of initial installed cost and energy output on the LCOE value. For a PV system with production cost at $0.5/W, the initial installed system cost will be $1.5-$2/W, after considering labor cost and module margin. If we assume energy output is 1500 kWh/kW/yr, which is reasonable in south west area in the U.S., the LCOE value in Figure 3 will fall in the range between $0.06/kWh and $0.08/kWh, the lower side of grid parity value for the U.S. residential electricity rates range.

Figure 3. LCOE contours in $/kWh for solar PV systems for energy output versus initial cost of the system for a zero interest loan, discount rate of 4.5%, degradation rate of 0.5%/yr and 30 year lifetime (Courtesy of Prof. Joshua Pearce at Queen’s University)

Based on the analysis above, it is reasonable to believe we can power the U.S. electric grid solely by solar PV, technically and economically. Thomas Edison had a great quote on solar energy: “We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Natures inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. … I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”


David Anthony was the Managing Director of 21Ventures, LLC, a VC management firm that has provided seed, growth, and bridge capital to over 40 technology ventures across the globe, mainly in the cleantech arena. David received his MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in 1989 and a BA in economics from George Washington University in 1982. David passed away in April 2012. 

Tao Zheng is a material scientist in advanced materials and cleantech industry. He held 20+ patents and patent applications, and published many peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals. Tao Zheng received his B.S. degree in polymer materials sciences from Tsinghua University in China, and a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering from University of Cincinnati. He obtained his MBA degree with distinction in finance and strategy from New York University, Stern School of Business, where he was designated as “Stern Scholar” and received “Harold Price Entrepreneurship Award”. 

11 replies
  1. Jacob Silver
    Jacob Silver says:

    The tar sands in Canada have been opened. The full use of the fossil energy of that area will make ameliorating global warming, and saving the human species, impossible, or very close to it. The use of solar energy, with a national commitment to rely solely on it, would significantly reduce the release of carbon in the atmosphere in North America. The United States would then be in the position to persuade Canada to follow suit. With some assistance, the United States could also persuade Mexico. With all of North America relying only on solar power, Asia and Europe would be inclined to follow suit. With European and North American assistance Africa could be included. Then with a massive reforestation project in China, Russia. Scandinavia, and North America we could gain control of atmospheric carbon. But all of this must start with the demonstration by the United States that it is possible to produce all industrial and residential electricity by solar.

  2. Richard
    Richard says:

    The most effective and scalable solution for mass grid energy storage are vanadium redox flow batteries. These renewable energy storage devices are the future of grid energy storage.

    These batteries contain massive vats of vanadium and sulfuric acid as an electrolyte mixture. The vanadium electrolyte is pumped threw the cell stack and charges by passing electrons threw the cell stack membrane which creates DC electricity. Special machinery than converts the DC charge into AC and is ready to be dispatched immediately, or simply stored till the demand is low.

    This article from American Vanadium Corp. explains the different types of renewable energy being used and the storage devices currently installed in the Americas.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] solar power could mean that Los Angeles could be powered by its skyscrapers. Cole notes that it is possible that two-thirds of the US energy needs could be met by photo-voltaic energy systems in the near […]

  2. […] of cheap energy sources dooms fracking. 6. Scientists have concluded that it is perfectly practical to provide 2/3s of US electricity from solar over the next decades. The main problem is not electricity generation or having enough land to put the cells on, it is […]

  3. […] Scientists have concluded that it is perfectly practical to provide 2/3s of US electricity from solar over the next decades. […]

  4. […] Scientists have concluded that it is perfectly practical to provide 2/3s of US electricity from solar over the next decades. The main problem is not electricity generation or having enough land to put the cells on, it is the […]

  5. […] Scientists have concluded that it is perfectly practical to provide 2/3s of US electricity from solar over the next decades. The main problem is not electricity generation or having enough land to put the cells on, it is the […]

  6. […] Biopower in 2017Greentech Media (blog)Foreign Policy: Made In The ShadeNPRBradenton Herald -Cleantech Blog (blog)all 104 news […]

  7. […] in wind, solar, energy storage and engineering. It has become one of the largest non …David Anthony's Last Question – Can We Power the US Solely off of Solar?Cleantech Blog (blog)Is Alternative Energy Worth It?Huffington Post (blog)Stat of the Day: 40 […]

  8. […] division to make the project successful. Expansion to capture EPC opportunities such as this …David Anthony's Last Question – Can We Power the US Solely off of Solar?Cleantech Blog (blog)First big Ga. Power solar project comes onlineMcClatchy Washington BureauWire […]

  9. […] to technical potential energy capacity of single digit TWs from other renewable sources, […] Cleantech Blog TAGS:  Anthony’s, David, last, Power, Question, Solar, Solely This entry was posted […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!