Surface Area Required To Solar Power The World

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Surface area required to solar power the world

According to the United Nations 170,000 square kilometers of forest is destroyed each year. If we constructed solar farms at the same rate, we would be finished in 3 years.

New: I did a little revisioning, adding another power source we possibly haven’t considered.

From Image here. Science here.

[Via Cool Infographics]

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  • ian

    Trying to keep the panels from being in the sand in the Sahara would be a major task I think along with the rest of the maintenance.

  • jon

    It’s not very practical, in my opinion. We’re not going to build thousands of acres of solar panels in a desert that reaches 130 degrees Fahrenheit. That is, unless we’re okay with resorting to slavery and not minding that those slaves have a high mortality rate from heat exhaustion. I understand that this may not be the EXACT intention of this map, but it is mentioned in this article and elsewhere.

    I think a better map would be the land mass required for solar panels in relation to the size of various cities around the globe. You should make that infographic! I bet that would grab people’s attention a lot better.

  • Matt Ncube

    Jon, I wonder who would be the slave this time!

  • Emmanuel

    I don’t think the Saharan desert is located in Egypt…

    • leslie

      The Sahara covers parts of several African nations including Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia.

  • Duncan

    Slavery? I’m sure if various countries’ troops can survive desert conditions then we most certainly can look after the construction crews needed to build these systems. Slavery has nothing to do with it. To my mind it those countries who are precisely benefiting from the current oil-based energy system in pace have a vested interest in looking towards the next step. Sand will most certainly be an issue but again, let the technologists think up the answers – even if it takes more man/machine power to have some some sort of shifting system that allows the panels to move with the sands rather than battle with them, the cost-saving from having to ship billions of tonnes of oil/coal/gas to the generation source will go in no small way towards offsetting that cost I’m sure.

    As we in the West begin to run out of oil then we will need to turn to other options of energy, and a measure of this will need to be imported from systems such as this. In the UK, due to a lack of suitable sites on our own home turf and public defiance in the form of nimbysm we struggle to make use of our own natural energy resources, making these projects all the more needed.

  • Paul Freeman

    I don’t think the practicallity of the project is the point here, it’s a very extreme example showing that considering the size of the earth, not a lot of it needs to be used to provide us all with clean, safe power.

    As with anything you need to start with a “In a perfect world” solution, then tame it back to meet real world requirements, but this very clearly demonstrates that solar power can continue to be a very worth while source of energy.

    My first reaction looking at the map however is it should be using the Gall-Peters projection which aims to give better representation of the relative sizes of land-mass. (One of the many things I learnt watching the West Wing: As explained in this clip: )

  • Phil

    I have to disagree with the former opinions. Just recently it was announced that a couple of corporations have joined to build the largest solar power plant yet in the Sahara desert. You can read about it e.g. at (en) or at (de).

    The only purpose of this graphic – and I think it does it well – is that the area required is not unrealistically large, and that the world’s deserts could easily “hide” them. Powering the world with solar power thus is not a utopian but a feasible idea for the future.

  • El idiota

    In Sahara, under the panels must be fresher…

  • aqui_c

    Great map, but you should explain that the map is not conserving areas, so it can be a bit confusing (the map’s projection is not the best to show surfaces required.)

  • iain

    @jon – For massive construction projects in the desert heat please see Dubai. It can be done.

    The big problem is that it’s a dusty place. Everything in the desert gets covered in a fine layer of dust within hours. The efficiency of the panels will deteriorate rapidly without constant cleaning. And the water for cleaning isn’t easy to find. It would be any ongoing operations & maintenance work that would kill a project like this.

    • Charles

      Why not have automatic brushes, or air jets cleaning off the sand from the panels?

  • Axel J. Rose

    Though it makes for a nice thought experiment, as mentioned, it would be unpractical in the end. Manufacturing, distribution, construction and silicon availability (the cost of which increased twenty-fold in the last 10 years) would make this project take decades and be left at the mercy of politics and economic realities. Not saying solar power in not a viable solution, simply not possible at this scale.

  • jon

    To those who mention that construction projects in the desert “can be done,” note that this speaks nothing of quality of life for those who take on the task.

    As for Dubai, read this article:

    Dubai was built by slaves, essentially. If you still disagree with me after understanding how this sort of labor is treated in different parts of the world, then more power to you. Could it be done? Of course, with enough money and time. Could it be done safely while not forcing poverty onto those who build and maintain it? “Maybe” is the best case scenario.

    I wasn’t mainly speaking to the practicality of the chosen locations, though I mentioned that location specifically because it has been brought up many times in the past. My main thought is that seeing tiny boxes on a huge map isn’t the best way to demonstrate an idea. It’s not enough to show scale–which I consider to be one of the most important reasons to create an infographic in the first place. I think we can all agree on that. =)

  • Glen

    My question would be – how much roofspace in the UK with solar PV would need to be covered to meet the UK’s electricity needs. Do we have enough roofspace and sunlight hours per year.

    Try it with Solar hot water too – on an overcast day your water would heat up enough to bathe in, on a sunny day the system has to vent because the water temp goes over 100 degrees celsius…

  • John

    exactly how did you figured out all this info? it sounds like a real big BS!!!!!

  • brett

    Whenever large-scale solar is discussed you have this outpouring of angst for hypothetical victims and concerns over dust. I have lived and worked in deserts and they are much healthier places to live than the tropics. Australia has the hottest deserts in the world, and I have done hard manual work in temperatures over 40C. And for the clever chap predicting fatalities, there are already millions of people living in these regions, for whom these temperatures are not difficult, let alone fatal. What kills them is poverty.

    Oh, and for the record, you clean the panels/reflectors/heliostats at night. You don’t need water to remove dust from suitably manufactured glass, a soft cloth works fine.

    I have spoken to workers who have cleaned panels at the Barstow, California Solar One plant, I think the main complaint was that it was a bit boring. But no more so than cleaning offices.
    The wages they were paid would go rather a long way in sub Saharan Africa, one of the worlds most desperately poor regions. Better yet if the people who live there already were given jobs, there are no acclimatization issues, and less need for young people to move to overcrowded and terribly poor urban slums.

    If you want to talk about slavery, look at the practice of agriculture in the torrid zones. Look at where your coffee and cocoa come from. Look at the land area required to feed the world, and compare it to the land area needed to power it. Yes, this isn’t an accurate projection, Its an order-of-magnitude demonstration of how little is needed.

    Its also not about silicon, for the ill informed fellow making that comment. Concentrating solar thermal uses nothing more exotic than steel, glass and concrete, with water as a working fluid to drive turbines. And before some bright spark for the CEC starts that “embodied energy ” nonsense, the energy payback period on these plants is generally in the months, not years, and represent a massive amplification of energy resources.

  • Chris

    Wouldn’t it depend as much on where the solar panels were put on how many we’d need?

    Surely somewhere like England couldn’t generate as much electricity through solar panels as Central Africa where there’s more sun? Has that been taken into account in how much land area would need to have solar panels?

  • Axel J. Rose

    To Brett,

    The ‘science’ bit of the references of those who made the above picture seem very much to focus on photovoltaic technology, hence my reflexion on silicon availability. If we were talking about thermal solar power then yes, it would indeed remove many of the manufacturing hurdles associated with the creation of no less than half a million square kilometers of solar panels. That said, it does not address the issue of political instability or the economic cost of such grand works.

    The arab oil embargo of 1973 was caused when Arab states refused the export of oil to supporters of Israel during the Yom Kippur war. In other words, a political, unrelated issue caused a serious energy crisis across the world. According to the plans as they are, we would leave much of the electricity generation capacity of the european continent in these very hands. It would be very easy to gain political leverage by threatening to turn off the switch, just like Russia does currently with its natural gas policy. The point I am trying to make is that by localising power generation into too few hands, whatever they may be, is inherently dangerous.

  • power save solar

    So what about the electric car and clean coal – don’t we need to take the steps we have the technology for now – and retro fit all of the old coal burning plants before we strip the rain forest of palm oil?

  • solar power generator

    It is a complicated scenario and a very intricately balanced eco-system. Converting from the old industrial revolution system to the new clean energy system is going to take some heavy lifting and political will – hopefully we are seeing that beginning to happen now.

  • how much does solar power cost

    While for the moment the widescale destruction of rainforests in South East Asia continues, hopefully the palm oil story will serve as a cautionary tale which will lead to much better informed policymaking and behaviure. Politicians must resist the urge to rush to legislate and subsidise in order to bask in the glow of being seen to be “doing something” while a number of so-called green companies profit from taxpayer subsidised destruction. Energy policy must make sense from a scientific (i.e. it should be energy positive), economic and environmental viewpoint. However the continued promotion of ethanol and coal-to-liquids calls for continued skepticism.

  • Drakar2007

    Hmm.. I wonder how these squares compare to the total area, by region, of skyscraper rooftops? You know, those rooftops that are rarely seen, even more rarely used, perfectly flat, reasonably accessible to maintenance people and builders, presumably in good proximity to major backbones of the electric grid…

  • Michael

    I feel like this total area is much, much less than the total area of roads in the world. Imagine if substantial roadway countries on in each region (e.g. US, GB, Germany, China, India, etc.) found a way inlay a significant area of solar collection panels into/alongside roadways (which collect and store a tremendous amount of heat as it is) and partially subsidized the cost by selling surplus energy to neighboring countries. It’s too bad the world doesn’t work this way. Way too bad that most buildings with solar panels only install enough to power the building. It would be nice if there were more widespread programs to sell surplus energy into the power grids the way some countries do for wind energy.

  • Michael

    Also, just wanted to say I’m not very informed about the mechanics of solar energy collection, so my post was more a comparison of energies spent than of a real world solution.

  • Tom

    Whats missing from a lot of these discussions about renewable energy is transmission. Often times the best locations for solar plants ( i.e. the Sahara ) and wind farms as well is far from places of consumption. I’ve been involved with some clean energy projects and time and time again, the bottleneck is building the transmission infrastructure which is costly to build and maintain.

    Take for example China, for all intents and purposes on track to becoming the largest energy consumer in the world. The government is set to meet its goal of 15% energy capacity coming from renewable sources by 2020 however the reality is most of the wind farms built to meet this goal aren’t even connected to the grid due to difficulty with getting transmission lines built.

  • micro sd speicherkar

    A thought:

    If you create a huge solar farm, you create a bunch of shade, which means any water you might leave laying around in that shade won’t evaporate as quickly.

    That means you could possibly grow stuff in the shade of a solar farm and slowly reclaim desert areas (and gum up the solar panels)

    Has anybody heard of such a strategy being studied?

  • Anonymous

    I wish people would get over their fear of nuclear power. With all the stupid ***** we do to the environment the fact that people view the one in a million chance of something going wrong with a nuclear reactor as a real and pressing issue speaks volumes about the general populaces inability to assess risk in a rational manner.

  • bleno

    Great map, but we can’t apply that directly.

    Europe’s power in Africa is inconceivable.
    Anyway we can’t use only solar power, simply because we still need power during the night.

  • Sankalp Arora

    Solar Cell Performs the best at 25 Degree C Abient Temperature so Solar PV not But Solar Thermal Power Plant are ideal for deserts.

  • Sonja P

    The efficiency of solar power is still disappointing. The cost is falling but it seems there is nothing done for efficiency, I my be wrong. I think it is an issue overlooked.

  • Anon

    “the fact that people view the one in a million chance of something going wrong with a nuclear reactor as a real and pressing issue speaks volumes about the general populaces inability to assess risk in a rational manner.” – The problem with nuclear is not the possibility of disaster but the problem with waste.

    “The efficiency of solar power is still disappointing” – The efficiency of solar power, and other renewables, is very much equivalent to that of traditional generation; without the waste, environmental damage, and maintenance costs.

    A quick google shows this: “The current market leader in solar panel efficiency (measured by energy conversion ratio) is SunPower, a San Jose based company. Sunpower’s cells have a conversion ratio of 23.4%, well above the market average of 12-18%. However, advances past this efficiency mark are being pursued in academia and R&D labs with efficiencies of 42% achieved at the University of Delaware in conjunction with DuPont by means of concentration of light. The highest efficiency achieved without concentration is by Sharp Corporation at 35.8% using a proprietary triple-junction manufacturing technology in 2009.”

  • Lindsayraikwarme

    China and Russia put the blame on some screwed up experiments of US for the earthquake that happened in Haiti.
    Chinese and Russian Military scientists, these reports say, are concurring with Canadian researcher, and former Asia-Pacific Bureau Chief of Forbes Magazine, Benjamin Fulford, who in a very disturbing video released from his Japanese offices to the American public, details how the United States attacked China by the firing of a 90 Million Volt Shockwave from the Americans High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) facilities in Alaska
    If we can recollect a previous news when US blamed Russia for the earthquake in Georgio. What do you guys think? Is it really possible to create an earthquake by humans?
    I came across this article about Haiti Earthquake in some blog it seems very interesting, but conspiracy theories have always been there.

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  • Gl1tch

    Will someone please site where the U.N. released this figure?

  • Chevaliers

    The areas seem so small compared to whole planet that need power !

  • Paul

    Don’t forget we would have to convert all of our other technologies to be zero omissions not just power generation (though this is a very large chunk of emissions and provided we can make electric or H-cell cars we could run both in tandem)

  • Matt dz

    Well, we SHOULD drill the geothermal energy we have out first, that will set us straight for at least 4,000 years, (We use .5 zetajoules of power around the world a year, there are 2,000 zetajoules easily available)
    PLUS the extra energy we should be getting from solar panels, where it is practical, wind turbines etc. etc.

    And Geothermal heat does regenerate.

  • brian

    I usually like it when I see you on Hardball, the Ed Show, Countdown, etc. However, I take issue with your comment tonight, 6/18, on the Ed Show. Referring to solar water heater Democrats using Joe Barton’s comments against Republicans in the fall elections as “fair.” While I agree substantively and specifically with you that his comments should be used against Republicans in the fall, I disagree with the notion of it being a “fair” attack.

  • Heather

    I understand that this figure isn’t your own, but I’m commenting here as I can’t work out how to comment on the original, and anyway, you’re promoting it :-)

    It’s out by a factor of 10 (i.e. you would need 10 times the amount of solar panels) for lattitudes around that of the UK. Closer to the equator it’s more realistic, further away it’s even worse. I quote from the excellent book “Sustainable energy without the hot air” by David MacKay (available for free at

    “The power of raw sunshine at midday on a cloudless day is 1000 W per
    square metre. That’s 1000 W per m2 of area oriented towards the sun, not
    per m2 of land area. To get the power per m2 of land area in Britain, we
    must make several corrections. We need to compensate for the tilt between
    the sun and the land, which reduces the intensity of midday sun to about
    60% of its value at the equator. We also lose out because it is
    not midday all the time. On a cloud-free day in March or September, the
    ratio of the average intensity to the midday intensity is about 32%. Finally,
    we lose power because of cloud cover. In a typical UK location the sun
    shines during just 34% of daylight hours.

    The combined effect of these three factors and the additional compli-
    cation of the wobble of the seasons is that the average raw power of sun-
    shine per square metre of south-facing roof in Britain is roughly 110 W/m2 ,
    and the average raw power of sunshine per square metre of flat ground is
    roughly 100 W/m2 .”

    Also, even covering the amount of land in your picture wouldn’t be trivial: if you put them near where people live, you need to allow space for roads and stuff (buildings can be covered by solar panels, obviously). If you put them far away from where people live then you need yet more power to account for electricity lost in transmission. And land covered in solar panels is land on which you can’t grow food, either.

    I do think we can power humanity with renewable energy, but it’s certainly not as trivial as the map implies!

  • Darris

    I feel like the electricity diminishing over distance isn’t taken into account here. Maybe it is though. It just seems that if you send energy to Maine that’s coming all the way from the southwestern desert, there won’t be much left by the time it arrives.
    That’s not even counting the poor people in Greenland lol

  • Maestro Saint Germai

    It’s amazing to see how few land it is….. There are so many neccessities in Western World that things must change.

  • MIke

    Nope. The figures don’t add up. The above graphic is misleading nonsense. Cut out the speculation. Take the data for a real-life operating solar thermal power station, say Nevada Solar One. Scale it up to global demand. Annual global energy consumption is about a million times the amount of power produced by Nevada Solar One in a year. Therefore you need a million times the area of that power station, i.e. a million times 1.6 square kilometres. Now draw a box on google earth 1.6 million square kilometres in area. Then factor in a demand doubling period of around 35 years and draw the area required in 2045, i.e. 3.2 million square kilometres. Get the picture?