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Could the U.S. meet its energy needs with solar panels alone? April 8, 2008

Posted by OldGuy in Alternatives.
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It’s an interesting question. I’ve been reading posts about whether the US has enough energy capacity to meet existing, much less emerging demands.  Today, Pablo Päster, writing  at Salon.com. asked whether the US could meet its energy demand with solar alone.

Think about it.  Solar energy is free to us.  If not captured, its only purpose is to contribute to global warming.  Päster quotes Dan Berger, senior project designer at SPG Solar, as saying we would need about 54 square feet of solar collectors per person (at current efficiencies and current usage) to meet the annual demands.

(I hope he’s counting for days without sunshine – I spent time in Ohio this week, and it rained.)

How much land is that?  Berger says it would be 586 square miles – about one-third of Rhode Island.   I’ve driven across New Mexico and Nevada, and I know there’s sunshine for most of that sitting empty out there.  But then you’ve got the problem of moving the power to the east coast, where it’s needed.

And the materials.  Berger says that a typical solar panel contains between 800 and 1,570 grams of silicon per square meter.   Given current manufacturing rates, it would take over 12 years to make all the solar panels for the project – if (and only if) we stop using silicone for other purposes, like making computer chips.  So count on 20 years, just to be safe.  By then, the population (and the demand) will be ????

Factor all that in, and the answer is clearly no.  Solar is not the only answer.  It is a valuable component of the solution, but not the only answer.  Still, Päster got us thinking.  By mid-day, when I got a chance to read the post, there were already a number of thoughtful posts, plus a few rants!  Those comments alone make this a top read.

Go see for yourself here.

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