Set aside, for a second, the myriad complaints that get lobbed at solar power—that it’s too expensive, that it’s hated by Republican politicians and has become "partisan"—and just look at the brass tacks; the potential electrical output of the different solar technologies alone. That’s what the National Renewable Energy Laboratory did, and in a new report, they found that solar held more potential to generate more power than any other clean energy source.
Between the various technologies already on the market, the NREL reckons there’s a proven potential for solar to hit a capacity of 200,000 gigawatts in the United States alone. For some perspective, 1 gigawatt is what a single nuclear power plant might generate, and it’s more than most coal plants. A gigawatt of capacity is enough to power approximately 700,000 homes.
You get the gist—we could pretty much run the entire continent on solar power if we deployed the technology properly.
Here’s how the various solar technologies break down in terms of potential, from the report (via Think Progress):
Urban Utility-Scale Photovoltaics (big solar plants in cities):
“The total estimated annual technical potential in the United States for urban utility-scale PV is 2,232 terawatt-hours (TWh). Texas and California have the highest estimated technical potential, a result of a combination of good solar resource and large population.”
Rural Utility Scale PV (big solar plants in the desert):
“Rural utility-scale PV leads all other technologies in technical potential. This is a result of relatively high power density, the absence of minimum resource threshold, and the availability of large swaths for development. Texas accounts for roughly 14% (38,993 TWh) of the entire estimated U.S. technical potential for utility-scale PV (280,613 TWh).”
Rooftop PV (small, “distributed” solar arrays owned by individuals, small businesses or homeowners):
“Total annual technical potential for rooftop PV is estimated at 818 TWh. States with the largest technical potential typically have the largest populations. California has the highest technical potential of 106 TWh due to its mix of high population and relatively good solar resource.”
Concentrated Solar Power (solar technology wherein giant mirrors reflect light onto a single point to generate steam):
“Technical potential for CSP exists predominately in the Southwest…. Texas has the highest estimated potential of 22,786 TWh, which accounts for roughly 20% of the entire estimated U.S. annual technical potential for CSP (116,146 TWh).”
And there you have it. There’s a truly massive potential for solar power generation that’s just idling right now, held at bay by political opposition, tough market conditions, and, most of all, the unduly cheap cost of burning fossil fuels. But the above demonstrates that if we somehow roused the will to do so, we very well could run the world on clean energy.