Electrifying world with Solar: How much Surface Area required?

Electricity powers our daily lives and drives economic growth, so it’s no surprise that some countries consume more electricity than others. According to recent data, the top 10 countries with the highest total electricity consumption are China, the United States, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Canada. These countries have high demand for electricity due to factors such as large populations, industrialization, and economic development.

It has been an interesting exercise to mathematically assume how much surface area would be required to install solar panels in these countries to meet their electricity needs. However, please do understand that this article is purely an interesting hypothesis and not a concrete recommendation in any sense. It’s just a mere area-based assumption to see how much land we might need to electrify a country or this entire world.

China, the United States, and India are the largest consumers of electricity globally, with China alone accounting for almost 20% of total global electricity consumption. Russia, Japan, and Germany also have large and developed economies, which contribute to their high levels of electricity consumption. South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Canada also consume relatively large amounts of electricity due to their populations, industrial bases, and economic development. I assume that you possess the basic understanding that electricity consumption doesn’t necessarily reflect a country’s prosperity or well-being, but it is a significant indicator of economic and industrial activity.

Top 10 countries with the highest total electricity consumption (2019):

  1. China – 9,596 billion kWh
  2. United States – 4,178 billion kWh
  3. India – 3,599 billion kWh
  4. Russia – 1,295 billion kWh
  5. Japan – 1,196 billion kWh
  6. Germany – 647 billion kWh
  7. South Korea – 593 billion kWh
  8. Iran – 423 billion kWh
  9. Saudi Arabia – 358 billion kWh
  10. Canada – 347 billion kWh

Again, I am referring my last quote before banging on the complete article is that the ranking of countries by electricity consumption may change depending on the data source and time frame being considered for these assumptions. It is also important to remember that a country’s electricity consumption does not necessarily reflect its level of development or well-being.”.

before starting let me break the ice on one thing first, that it would not be a fair idea to actually concentrate all the solar energy generation from one single place, and I say this because, first, it is highly unlikely that we could find a single location on Earth that gets enough sunlight throughout the year to power the entire world’s electricity needs. Even if such a location did exist, the infrastructure required to transmit and distribute the electricity generated by solar panels over long distances would be incredibly costly and inefficient. Also, the installation and maintenance of the solar panels on a large scale would be very expensive, and building a large solar panel installation in a single location would have a significant environmental impact, including potentially negative effects on land use, wildlife, and natural resources.

To an equal importance, solar panels can only generate electricity when the sun is shining, so we would need backup systems like batteries or other forms of energy storage to ensure a consistent supply of electricity.

Assessing top 4 countries for Solar Panel area needs for self-electrification

Lets look at these countries and how much area they may require to go completely solar. This is a hypothetical assessment for speculative assumption.

Assumption taken for the calculation in the below table: To fulfill the electricity consumption of a given country, the number of solar panels required can be calculated using an average solar panel capacity of 250 watts and a panel size of 1.6 meters by 1 meter.

CountryElectricity ConsumptionHow many solar panels required?Total Surface area required?Relatable area like?
China6 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh)24 billion38,400 square kilometersProvince of Jiangsu, i.e. 250th part of China
USA4 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh)16 billion25,600 square kilometersState of Connecticut, i.e. 385th part of USA
India1.2 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh)4.8 billion7,680 square kilometersCity of Mumbai, i.e. 428th part of India
Russia1 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh)4 billion6,400 square kilometersCity of Moscow, i.e. 2671st part of Russia

Assumption for the Solar panel area required for electrifying the whole world

The surface area of solar panels required to power the entire world would be veryvery large. The total global electricity consumption in 2019 was about 22 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh). If we use the same assumptions as in the previous answers i.e. an average solar panel capacity of 250 watts and a panel size of 1.6 meters by 1 meter, it would take about 88 billion solar panels to generate electricity for the entire world.

The total surface area of these panels would be about 140,800 square kilometers, which is about the size of the country of Spain. As with the estimates for individual countries, this is a rough estimate and does not take into account factors such as solar panel efficiency, cloud cover, and the amount of available space for solar panel installations.

Are there any large, undeveloped or sparsely populated areas of this size available in the world?

Now we have looked at the size of land that would be required to electrify the whole world. But is there any such space available? So, actually there are many regions of the world that have a land area to fulfill the 140,800 square kilometers as per our hypothetical calculation, but they are not necessarily empty or uninhabited.

But, many regions of the world that are relatively uninhabited or have a very low population density includes the vast stretches of desert, remote islands, and areas with challenging climates or terrain that make human settlement difficult.

For example, some regions that we can look at having a land area similar to or larger than 140,800 square kilometers with relatively low population density include:

  • Sahara Desert: 3.5 million square kilometers
  • Australian Outback: 2.4 million square kilometers
  • Amazon Rainforest: 6.7 million square kilometers
  • Antarctica: 14 million square kilometers

However, it would not be practical or feasible to install all the solar panels in one single area to meet the world’s electricity needs in a single location. Also, as explained before one single place might not be feasible for solar and could be better for other renewable source of energy. Secondly, even if installed at one single location, the generation might not be efficient as per the requirements due to other climatic and environmental impacts.

Solar panels are most effective at generating electricity when they are installed in areas with high levels of sunlight, and the availability of sunlight varies widely depending on the location.

Its noteworthy to understand that even these seemingly empty or uninhabited regions are home to a wide variety of plants, animals, and ecosystems, and many of them also have indigenous populations with a long history of living in and managing these landscapes.

Additionally, the infrastructure required to transmit and distribute electricity generated by solar panels over long distances would be very costly and inefficient. It is more practical and cost-effective to install solar panels in many different area, close to where the electricity is needed, and to use a mix of renewable energy sources, such as wind, hydro, and geothermal power, to meet the world’s electricity needs.

Also, solar energy is just one source of electricity, and a combination of different energy sources can typically be used to meet electricity demand as well.

Note: One important point to also learn is that the surface area required to generate a given amount of electricity can be reduced through the use of concentrated solar power (CSP) systems, which use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate heat that is used to produce electricity. this has not been factored anywhere in the assumptions.

Closing Note: Solar Panels and the total surface area required

It is technically possible to install solar panels in a single area to generate electricity for the entire world, but it would not be practical or feasible due to several challenges.

These challenges include finding a location that receives enough sunlight throughout the year, building the necessary infrastructure to transmit and distribute the electricity, the high cost of installing and maintaining solar panels on a large scale, and the environmental impact of building a large solar panel installation in a single location. In addition, solar panels are only able to generate electricity when the sun is shining, so backup systems would be needed to ensure a reliable supply of electricity.

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