Can Solar Power the World?

Due to the harmful environmental effects of fossil fuels, many are wondering if solar power could be the answer to the world's energy needs. Several research groups and organizations around the planet have found that solar energy certainly is plentiful enough that it could be used to power the world, but the reality of the situation is a bit more complicated.

Multiple studies published in the journal Nature Communications have examined claims that solar power could produce enough electricity to power the entire world. One team of researchers determined that there are currently 0.2 million kilometers of rooftops around the planet, and if each one was covered in solar panels, this process could produce 27 petawatt-hours of electricity per year, far more than our current use. However, other studies have noted that the logistics of getting this electricity where it needs to go are a major obstacle: Many population centers are located in areas where generating solar power isn't practical, meaning that this electricity would have to be delivered in sizable quantities over long distances.

Another assessment, done by Carbon Tracker, a U.K. organization, also came to the conclusion that solar could power the world. Their research found that installing solar panels on 450,000 square kilometers of land could generate enough electricity to power the world several times over. They also noted that this amount of land is less than the amount already used by an infrastructure reliant on fossil fuels. However, they note that the best approach to replacing fossil fuels would use both solar and wind energy. The organization predicts that the combination of solar and wind power could supply enough electricity to power the world as soon as the mid-2030s.