In the U.S.

Published on May 10th, 2008 | by Shirley Siluk Gregory

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Solar Energy Could Power U.S. Many Times Over

The Sunshine Energy Solar Array near Sarasota. (Photo courtesy of Florida Power & Light.)If the U.S. moved aggressively to start harnessing the solar power it receives daily, it could generate enough clean energy to meet the country’s needs many times over, according to a new report from Environment Florida.

The report, “On the Rise; Solar Thermal Power and the Fight Against Global Warming,” touts the multiple benefits of solar thermal power that the U.S. has barely begun to tap. One, it’s a clean source of energy that could replace other power sources that generate greenhouse gases and worsen climate change. Two, by storing thermal energy, it can generate electricity even when the sun isn’t shining. And ,three, it’s wildly abundant in the U.S., offering way more clean energy than we currently use on a daily basis.

The report notes that a 100-mile-by-100-mile solar thermal installation in the American Southwest could meet the entire country’s energy needs. That area, it further adds, is just a little larger than the amount of land in the U.S. that has been strip-mined for coal.

“If we are going to get serious about fighting global warming and addressing our energy challenges, solar energy must be part of the solution,” said Holly Binns, Environment Florida’s field director.

While the Southwest alone could generate more than 7,000 gigawatts of energy,  other parts of the U.S.  — including Florida — promise a large potential for solar energy development. The Sunshine State has some catching-up to do, but recently improved its clean-energy performance with the opening of the Sunshine Energy Solar Array near Sarasota. The 28,000-square-foot array, Florida’s largest to date, can generate 250 kilowatts of energy, enough to power about 45 typical homes per month.

Clearly, the state will need quite a few more like these to make a serious dent in its fossil-fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Florida officials hope recently approved green-energy legislation will encourage those kinds of developments. The bill includes, among other things, authorization for a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a renewable fuel standard and renewable portfolio standard that promotes wind and solar energy, and new building standards that call for higher energy efficiency in new homes and businesses.

At the national level, the Environment Florida report is also encouraging. With the right policies, it says, the U.S. could easily generate 80 gigawatts of concentrating solar power by 2030. That would be enough to power 25 million homes, reduce carbon emissions by 6.6 percent and create between 75,000 and 140,000 new jobs.

Good news — for a change — isn’t it? Let’s just hope the right people are listening.




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About the Author

Shirley Siluk Gregory, a transplanted Chicagoan now living in Northwest Florida, represents the progressive half of Green Options' Red, Green and Blue segment. She holds a bachelor's degree in Geological Sciences from Northwestern University but graduated in 1984, just when the market for geologists was flatter than the Florida landscape. Just as well, though: she had little interest in spending her life either in a laboratory or, heaven forbid, an oil field. So, of course, she went into journalism. After extremely low-paying but fun and educational stints at several suburban Chicago weeklies and dailies, Shirley and her then-boyfriend/now-husband Scott found themselves displaced by a media buyout and spending the next several years working as freelancers. Among their credits: The Chicago Tribune, a publication for the manufactured-housing industry, and Web Hosting Magazine, a now-defunct publication that came and went with the dotcom era. Shirley's always been concerned about nature and conservation (and an avid pack-rat, as her family can attest to), but became even more rabidly interested in the environment primarily due to two factors: the growing signs that global warming was real and threatening, and the birth of her son, Noah, in 2003. Suddenly, the prospect of a world that might not be quite as habitable in 40 or 50 years took on a whole new, and personal, meaning. Living where she lives now also helped light the fire of Shirley's environmental awareness: her hometown was severely damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and beaten up again by Hurricane Dennis in 2005. That, and the fact that she and her family were vacationing in New Orleans until the day before Katrina -- and spent 12 hours driving home for a trip that normally takes 3 -- has made Shirley deeply appreciate how fragile our lifestyles are, and how dependent they are on sound management of natural resources and sustainable living practices. That's why she's become a passionate reader and writer about all things green and sustainable.



  • Fred

    Wait, so drilling for oil isn’t ok. Nuclear isn’t ok. But covering 10000 square miles of land with mirrors is ok? Why is that better?

    • http://Web someone

      helps the earth

    • I

      If it became industry standard to place solar panels on houses, then we wouldn’t need to waste that much space.

  • Shirley Siluk Gregory

    You can always find a downside to any proposal, and in this case, I’m sure you could argue that a 100-mile-by-100-mile area covered with solar panels would disrupt wildlife in the area. But I don’t see how that is comparable to, say, drilling for oil in ANWR, where a spill could kill thousands of birds, whales and other creatures, devastate indigenous communities that rely on subsistence hunting, poison large stretches of ocean and coastal areas, contribute to rising greenhouse gas emissions … and provide just a small portion of the energy that a Mojave solar installment could.

    Now, nuclear power is a bit different, in my opinion. I’ve come around closer to James Lovelock’s position that nuclear power might be the only way in which we can generate adequate, continuous energy while cutting our dependence on oil, gas and coal to avert catastrophic climate change. I still have nagging concerns, but I addressed “10 Green Arguments for Nuclear Power” in an earlier post here.

  • Ryan Grange

    As a resident of said southwest, I plan on devoting my rooftop to generating electricity once the prices reach the point where I’ll break-even in 5 or maybe 10 years (instead of just over 15 where prices are now). And we could definitely put some of that unused desert to good use. There are many places out there that are practically dead.

  • Dat Nguy

    The report only stated that a 100×100 mile area of the southwest was needed. I know a few hundred miles of desert where it won’t bother anyone/thing. Hell, the collectors themselves don’t even need to be flat. You can build up and reduce the footprint by a decent factor if done properly.

  • Hardy

    Well Fred, I don’t see the harm in covering 10.000 square miles of desert with solar panels. Plenty of desert there in the US isn’t there? When placed strategiclly these panels could actually contribute to the growth of widlife, providing much needed shade (and possible water through condensation of water on the bottom of the solar panels at night).

    Happy now? :)

  • CactusPete

    If anyone has ever been to Blythe, CA. or Quartzite, AZ or Yuma, AZ, they will understand how this can be done. I say lay the panels right over the top of those pits. As for drilling in Alaska, why not? We know how to do it; can do it safely and we have already demonstrated with old technology (the pipeline) that we can do it and not appreciably alter the environment. Come on; get real; ANWR is an option. I am buying a Prius; there is a wait list; but now is the time. What we should do is develop an electric car that goes 200 miles on a charge; 55 MPH. Then we plug into solar generated electricity. Perfect.

  • James

    Just for comparison, 10,000 square miles is 4 times the size of the entire state of Delaware. While being an unprecedented engineering challenge, this is all technically feasible. It will undoubtedly cause global supply shortages in the raw materials needed for the solar thermal installations, however.

    Building new nuclear reactors will provide more energy with a smaller geographic and resource footprint than this solar thermal design.

    How about a compromise? How about we build nuclear reactors in the middle of the desert? It won’t hurt anything and I don’t see any real problem with it.

  • James

    Besides needing to pump in lots of water, I suppose.

  • Bob Downs

    I support nuke, geothermal and solar. But I do not
    think you can take one chunk of desert land to generate
    our nation’s power.

    To do so would be a serious security problem. There has to be some physical dispersal. Additionally, to distribute this power to the east coast I suspect would
    be prohibitive from a cost/efficiency standpoint.

  • Murray

    10,000 sq miles more than the total land area of LA County, Orange County and San Diego county combined. Covering that large of an area in the desert with solar panels just isn’t plausible. You’d have to cover almost half the Mojave Desert. That can’t be done without significantly affecting the ecosystem out there.

  • Steve

    I think this is fabulous and more so, extremely important. Between solar, wind, and hydroelectric power sources, With the right legislation, we could be completely free from dependancy on fossil fuels by 2030. If that isnt enough of a good thing for you Fred, equate it to this, would you rather have a large mirror in your backyard, or an inch of oil on top of your pool?

  • Grey

    Why cover the desert? Why cover any land at all? Everyone has a house, everyone has a roof, put the solar panels on the roofs of houses… very simple. It could be done very easily and in a short time frame with government subsidies and encouragement.
    There is however one major hurdle for this to be achieved. That is simply that it takes the control of energy away from the governments and corporations and puts it in the hands of the people. No modern ‘capitalist/fascist’ government would ever dream of contemplating such a move. They are all about keeping the people dependent on their products and therefore needing them. It guarantees their continued existence. The government would much prefer you to believe that we ‘need’ nuclear energy because it guarantees them massive control over their populations and a massive source of income far into the foreseeable future. Why do you think they make it so difficult and so expensive to setup your own solar panels and return the excess energy to the grid? Simply put it’s because everyone person that does it is one less source of income and one less dependent household.

  • Just Doit

    Then why doesn’t someone just do it? A lot of talk in North America about large scale alternative energy – but not much action.

    • http://Web Christian

      Google is! Support them and do google search for “Mohave desert Solar”. It’s a beautiful sight to see! Any arguement against covering the deserts with panels is completely falsified Big Electric BS! How can it be more harmful then coal mining?! thats just an outrage!

  • Mike

    As smart as all of the posters have been, I think they’ve taken the idea of a 100X100 spread far too literally. If you broke down the area into a grouping of 30 to 40 substations, not only would we reach the initial goal, but we would also be able to perform easier maintenance and load balancing in the event of a malfunction. Another benefit would be all of the duplicate jobs created. I’m speaking of quality here, not Wal-Mar* associate jobs. I’m pretty sure when we all get gas, we fill our tank even though we are only traveling for a few miles. We would have to have more than the initial goal. From a national security and efficiency standpoint, having smaller stations makes sense. Politicians should love them for all the jobs they’ll produce and the tax money they’d bring in. Having multiple corporations, one station would equal one corporation. I think this would lead to more competition in the long run. With 30-40 stations all working separately to become more efficient, the red tape is cut and technological advances become expedited. There could of course be stations outside of the south west. These would be “bump stations” that would add more current to the lines as the power is sent over long distances. Taking up less land around populated areas would allow the bump stations to be placed closer to where the power is needed, i.e. large metropolitan areas. These stations would use charged rectifiers and charged batteries to bump power. Would they all be using solar to charge their systems? Probably not. They’d use whatever was more efficient for their area. Tidal flow, wind, or alternative fuels excluding ethanol would all be great sources to support this need for bump power.

    Now for the money. Print it like we’ve always done. Give out low percentage loans to the companies willing to take the risk of building these giant beasts of electrical burden. Don’t expect to see the money back anytime soon. Pretend we’re loaning the Fed money instead of the other way around. Then let them all default. Period. They keep all the infrastructure and political clout and the people gain a CHEAP RENEWABLE energy source that they can be proud of. Should there be serious government intervention in the management of these systems? Of course. Will the corporations hate it and deal with it because the money will be great? Absolutely. I am thinking in the simplest of terms here. If anyone would like to post specifics and debunk my plan, please do.

  • Shirley Siluk Gregory

    Hey everyone: thanks for your comments so far! I now have a followup question for all of you: if there are some clean energy sources you don’t support, which ones would you support if they were located in your own backyard? Check out the alternatives and let me know your thoughts here.

  • Andrew

    One of the largest problems with our energy management system is the lack of a flexible power grid. Power grids are currently local domains controlled by individual power companies. With a more robust and interconnected grid, power sources (consumer grade wind turbines, for example) with low outputs could still contribute. However, I have my doubts as to whether this would ever happen, as it would virtually eliminate the hold that power companies have over energy pricing. If such a grid ever was implemented though, we could have remote nuclear facilities (removing the ‘not in my backyard’ concern for the actual plants), solar panel installations like the one talked about here, independent wind turbines or solar panels, all contributing small amounts.

  • PUTTPUTT

    PUT A GIANT FRESNEL LENS IN ORBIT AND BURN A HOLE SOMEPLACE!

  • http://scott.arbeitman.id.au/ Scott Arbeitman

    I think the 100 x 100 sq. mile fact was just for illustrative purposes. By nitpicking on this fact, you reducing the level of this debate and ignoring obvious workaournds (like installing them on existing roofs like Ryan suggest).

    The point: solar power can power America.

  • Greg

    Why do energy projects have to be massive single spot developments? IIRC 61,000 square miles of the US is paved already. Why not build solar fields over top of the parking lots of Walmarts and other such mega shopping establishments. Such things would allow for people to park in the shade, it doesn’t take up any pristine land and it could take a huge bite out of the fossil fuel consumption for power.

    The figure of 61,000 square miles doesn’t include buildings, so when you start adding roof tops, I doesn’t become hard to see how much, if not all the power in the US could come from solar if that’s what the country put its mind to.

  • Aidan

    well, I think the point is…a relatively small total acreage is enough create a lot of power. A lot of efficiency could be achieved by scattering the panel’s on rooftops and on small plots of land throughout the SW and California etc., then supplementing w/ wind, creating more efficient engines etc. One Stanford professor/researcher told me he’d identified another Saudia Arabia of wind – this one in the Gulf of Mexico -and he believed the energy could be delivered w/ a minimal loss of efficiency. The nuclear option is misguided. There ARE plenty of other alternatives that can be exploited and developed.

  • BA

    Solar is more flexible than many of these commenters realize: the 100 by 100 sq mile area can also be usable for other things, even grazing if feasible if panels are mounted on trackers or elevated arrays, and it doesn’t have to be a contiguous area either.
    Hey Fred, Solar doesn’t use waste ANY water for cooling (nuclear and coal), requires virtually NO maintenence and has NO EMISSIONS—-get it yet?

  • Vincent A Koppenhaver

    have heard about this for some time. what kind of price are we talikng about for a2000 sq. ft ouse?

  • EW

    Solar electric power isn’t green or environmentally harmless. The average reflectivity (albedo) of the land areas of the earth is 30%. The average reflectivity of solar panels is 5%. If you cover an area with solar panels you capture and retain 25% more solar heat than if you didn’t have those solar cells in place. Every kilowatt of solar electric power carries an extra heat load of about 7 to 9 kilowatts of captured heat energy. Of that 25% is heat that would have been bounced right back into space as reflected energy. This makes solar electric power one of the least green energy sources in terms of the direct impact on warming the planet. Note also that this effect is independent of greenhouse gasses and who or what is responsible for them.

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  • http://www.sustainablehomeplans.com Sustainable Design

    Any large scale solar installation is going to have some negative effects on an area, but surely it’s a step in a…..better direction. Harnessing renewable energy opposed to being dependant on any type of fuel is key inn moving in the right direction.

    Charles Precht
    Sustainable Design
    http://www.sustainablehomeplans.com

  • kattmanduu

    YES!!! These type of solar systems would be just what we need. I too live in the southwest and agree that there are many places we could put many smaller versions of such an array. Mix it with the new 10 to 100 megawatt vertical vane wind turbines such as the Chinese are building and we can do away with coal for a fuel, and won’t need nuclear as much either. There are new types reactors that uses Thorium to burn waste fuel rods and weapons waste to make power, it reduces it to having about 1/100 the dangerous waste that we have from our present type of reactors, and they will burn up all this waste we can’t seem to find places to store. We have enough waste fuel rods now to power 100 of such reactors for 100 years.
    The people who don’t like these reactors are the people who profit from storing and handling the waste and the weapons makers who profit from depleted uranium by making it into weapons. Lets burn it all up!

  • kattmanduu

    I’ve read all the comments here and find that 80% are in favor of such systems as this. Yes there are many here with ideas that make sense that only work hand in hand with the core idea. That’s what it’s all about folks, don’t you get it? Let’s talk about it, think and brainstorm a while and this happens. I love it! It’s called interaction, communication and compromise to all get to the same place. Yes there are dozens of ways to make power without fossil fuels being used as the fuel and I will count uranium as a fossil fuel too, it is mined from the earth like coal, and the results from using it are
    very dangerous to the environment.
    I like the idea I read about the solar systems over head in the larger parking lots and on the roof tops
    of all the tall buildings. Put some wind turbines up along the edged of them as well. Put wind turbines up in our national parks and city parks as well. I see millions of acres of open ranch land that is not very wisely used as well. Put wind turbines up there as well. The BLM has millions of acres of land that is suited for this all over my region in Mew Mexico.
    Smaller localized systems like this would take a big
    strain off the national power grid. We could produce more power than we consume right here in the state and feed the excess to the grid, and not use any of
    the fossil fuels to fuel the process.

  • Hugh Haskell

    Let’s put that 10,000 square miles in context. During the nineteenth century we had about 150,000 square miles cultivated in hay to feed the horses that were our main means of transportation at the time, and the hay thus generated was then deposited in a much less pleasant form, on the streets of our cities and towns. At one point the proto-environmentalists of the day were worrying that we would soon be buried under a sea of horse manure.

    I’d say that 10,000 square miles of solar panels that aren’t transferring anything to us except clean energy is a pretty good trade-off. In fact, since the days of the horse and buggy, we have paved a whole lot more than 10,000 square miles of our land just to build roads and parking lots.

  • http://www.yourselfsufficiency.com Self Sufficiency

    Hmmm its a plausibly good idea but isnt the technology futher forward now than just panels on the ground etc?

    I swera in spain they have this combo system of a solar panel/lense with a stirling engine?

    http://earth2tech.com/2008/02/11/infinia-raises-50m-for-stirling-solar/

    Infinia have a very good idea which is amazing if you thikn about how to make a combo system of using solar and a stirling engine (which apparently is much more efficient than combustion type generators and is cleaner than nuclear) of course people would say what would they use for the evening? Well no one has written up on this but using hydrogen as part of this system could mean you would use the amperage from this system to generate hydrogen by using electrolysis and storing this :) but of course because this aint anywhere close to retail status its up to back yard scientists and enthusiasts to try this :)

    I am :) – just need to find suitable container for hydrogen. lol I do like that thermal energy for nightime though i wonder what its limits are.

    Lets hope Barack obama keeps his word and makes this change!

    • Connservativie

      Uhh, yeah, Mr. President is kind of busy with Fast and furious, and then getting reelected, then fast and furious again

  • Kay

    The collectors belong on roofs all over the nation.

  • http://Web asad

    i personally think this idea is fantastic just because the idea of 100 sq. miles is not as big in a desert wouldn’t really hurt much wildlife and because if you research the Chernobyl disaster that was about to put the lives of all Europe at stake to radioactive cancer so if we can cut our dependability on oil that will really help us americans in a huge step to the future.

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  • http://Web Red

    There are faults with nearly every alternitive power source. In this case

    >Wild Life Disrupted
    >Constant Maintenance
    >Primary Target in War

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