But there’s also a catch.
So you’re saying it would only take 0.6% of the surface area of the continental United States to power the entire country with renewable solar power? Just 11,200,000 acres to generate 4,000,000 GWh of clean energy?
Well, all right! Problem solved! Let’s just fill that area with solar panels and enjoy … right?
That would be great, but unfortunately, the answer isn’t so simple as staking a bunch of panels across 12 million acres and calling it a day. First of all, that 11.2 million acres will expand quickly once things like service roads, operational facilities and transmission lines are incorporated. And then there’s the fact that you can’t just build one massive solar array and walk away. Solar capture areas would have to be distributed over a wide area to avoid the problem of cloudy days or storms or other weather events that would obscure the sun pouring down onto your energy farm.
And just because these energy stations would likely be located in the desert (you know, where the sun lives) doesn’t mean you can just put them anywhere. There are animal habitats and ecological systems that need to be considered, as well as encroachment on Native American tribal lands. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy: “while American Indian land comprises approximately 2% of total U.S. land base, it represents an estimated 5% of the total U.S. renewable energy generation potential.”
Then beyond questions of land use, there’s the issue of storage. After all, we don’t have dual suns that permit us to soak up solar energy 24 hours a day, and there will be inevitable interruptions in power relay due to maintenance or any number of incidents that can befall a power grid. That means we need storage — and really big batteries.
So, it’s not so simple as just throwing down 12 million acres of solar panels and hitting the switch. But no one ever said ditching fossil fuels completely would be cheap or easy. And if the return on this investment is saving our ability to inhabit the world, we think it’s worthwhile.