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Report: Solar Could Meet All The World’s Electricity Needs In 2050 Using Under One Percent Of World’s Land

By Jeff Spross on January 17, 2013 at 12:50 pm

"Report: Solar Could Meet All The World’s Electricity Needs In 2050 Using Under One Percent Of World’s Land"


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Highlighting the fact that a global switch to renewable energy is not just necessary, but doable, a new report released by the WWF concludes that the solar arrays necessary to meet all the world’s projected energy needs in 2050 would cover under one percent of global land area. Obviously this is a theoretical exercise, and 100 percent of the planet’s electricity needs are not actually going to be filled through solar. But several credible scenarios suggest that solar could provide about 30 percent of global total electricity in 2050, up from the 0.1 percent it provides now.

By going through the numbers, the Solar PV Atlas demonstrates both the practical feasibility of renewable energy, and the possibility of harmonizing solar energy with conservation goals:

The atlas considers electricity demands in seven diverse regions and calculates the area (land or roof) that would be needed for PV to meet these demands. In each of these cases, less than one per cent of the region’s total land cover would be required to host solar PV panels in order to meet one hundred per cent of the region’s projected electricity needs in 2050, taking into account solar resources and predicted electricity consumption and demographic changes. […]

With its selection of diverse areas, the atlas illustrates that PV technology, when well-planned, does not conflict with conservation goals. On a macro level, no country or region must choose between solar PV and space for humans and nature. Quite the opposite. As climate change threatens humans and the environment, it is more important than ever to work for the efficient and wide-scale adoption of well sited, responsibly and effectively operated renewable energy generation facilities. Environmental protection and renewable energy can and must develop in parallel.

In the map of Madagascar above, the small read and blue squares represent the land area needed for solar to meet 100 percent of the country’s projected electricity needs in 2010 and 2050, respectively. They’re drawn to scale relative to the map, in order to provide a straightforward visual comparison.

The Atlas also goes through Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa, Turkey, and the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh as examples. “The regions represent diverse geographies, demographics, natural environments, economies and political structures,” the Atlas points out. “They receive different average levels of sunshine, and all show vast potential for widespread development of solar PV.”

The Atlas builds on the earlier Energy Report from the WWF, which anticipates a total drop in global energy production by 2050. That’s due to increased efficiency outpacing population growth, thus allowing the same energy needs to be met with less energy. At the same time, it anticipates renewable-based electricity ramping up massively, finally displacing all other forms of electricity by 2050.

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63 Responses to Report: Solar Could Meet All The World’s Electricity Needs In 2050 Using Under One Percent Of World’s Land

  1. John McCormick says:

    Solar PV Atlas included the word “battery” once and “storage” three times. It made reference to another WWF report on energy but that storage issue deserves more reflection in the solar study.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      I agree, John, and storage is important for wind, too. With a smart grid and molten salt backup it becomes a nonissue, but that requires planning and commitment. Congress would prefer to build more freeways and ports.

    • Paul Klinkman says:

      Solar power storage is key to solar providing perhaps 80% of the world’s electricity.

      The old standby is pumped hydro. When solar electricity is plentiful, water is pumped uphill to a storage pond. At night the water is let back down through turbines.

      In Europe and also in Minnesota/Manitoba, existing hydroelectric dams are being outfitted with additional turbines. When solar or wind power is plentiful, water backs up behind the dam. Otherwise, twice the water goes through the turbines.

    • John McCormick says:

      The WWF 2011 Energy report flunked the storage test as well. Huge projection for solar and wind. Little to no thought about transmission and storage. This discussin desparately needs engineer input…people who know where electricity comes from and how it get to the demand. And, drop the idea that pump storage is an answer. It aint.

    • Mark Cogswell says:

      Energy storage is definitely in the list of things that need study, but German engineers have already proven that an interconnected renewable energy grid can supply 100% of the energy needs of its coverage area, without interruption, if it covers a sufficient geographic area. The wind is always blowing somewhere. Their test grid was contained within Germany. I’m sure that there are lots of caveats to their study, but the exercise was done in real life.

  2. Leif says:

    The fossil industry just barely keeps up trashing 100% of the Earth’s surface besides taking hundreds of billions of $$$ out of the public coffers. Go figure.

    • Solar Jim says:

      Oil Change International estimates global fossil fuel subsidies (direct and indirect) at about 3/4 trillion dollars per year. Then, of course, there are trillions annual damages of off-the-book accounting costs known as “externalities.”

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        The system is really a wonder, designed to destroy the many to enrich the very, very, few. Why do we still tolerate it?

        • Will Fox says:


          Most people view the alternative as communism/socialism, which has failed pretty much everywhere it’s been tried.

          Thankfully, there’s a much better alternative – a resource-based economy, which growing numbers of people are becoming aware of. See for example the Zeitgeist Movement, and the Venus Project.

          • Darth Vader says:

            If you dont want similar existential threats to take place in the future, you cannot just change the economy, but you need to change the political system that imposed this economic system in the first place. It is sad to watch how all of the democratic countries in the world stand paralyzed, unable to do something about the crisis that they themselves created, because it tells me that the very idea of democracy has failed completely. Someone once said “the definition of madness is to do the same thing twice and be expecting two diferent results”, in other words; ignoring that democracy was failed and try it once more will be madness, and it will sooner or later result in the extinction of mankind.

          • J4zonian says:

            Communism has been successful many times in many places–early Christian communities being just one. You’re talking about state capitalism, the coercive industrial system that shares all its faults with warlord capitalism–patriarchal child development leading to objectifying/commodifying the world, for example.

            The fact that those communities ended is largely a result of the willingness of systems and people disconnected from nature to use up their real capital–their ecosystems–to dominate and destroy all other systems. All systems end eventually; we are close to the end of capitalism, one way or another.

          • Merrelyn Emery says:

            Correct Darth. Representative democracy and our current capitalist economy share a design principle enshrining top down authority and inequality. The design principle must be changed to that producing shared authority, responsibility and equality, ME

          • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

            Sorry, Will. While defending socialism I neglected to thank you from bringing those interesting ideas to our attention. I’ll give them a look, soon.

  3. h4x354x0r says:

    1% for the whole world, mostly because the rest of the world uses so much less energy than the US. For the US only, the calculation is more like somewhere between 3-5% of continental landmass. My latest understanding of worldwide panel production indicates it would take nearly 30 years of the entire globe’s panel production to satisfy just US needs.

    We would need a completely new electric grid, too, not to mention as-yet invented battery and energy storage technologies.

    None of these are reasons not to get started, though. Quite the opposite: They are actually that many more reasons why we need to get started NOW, pour money into R&D, production, grid infrastructure, whatever it takes, and hopefully at least double our land efficiency, and halve the time it would take to achieve 100% energy replacement.

    As a nation, we could do this for ourselves, and for the rest of the world too. We could, if we tried. And, we’d be giving our children a better future.

    It’s absurd not to.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      Actually, it’s less than 1% for the US, too. We have 2.96 million square miles of land in the lower 48. Five acres of solar panels can produce one megawatt. There are 642 acres per square mile, = 128 mgw per sq mi. If we assume future power needs on the high side at 2 million megawatts, we’re at about 14,600 square miles for solar, or .5% of US continental land area.

      The Mojave desert alone could fit enough solar plants to power the whole country, and have plenty of land left over.

      Land use only became a major issue when oil company funded faux environmentalists began screaming about solar in the desert. There is plenty of flat, sunny, and barren land available, and transmission corridors for a smart grid are close by.

      • Solar Jim says:

        Existing, and new, roofs and structures (like carports) in the US alone could do much of the work of accommodating PV. These could thereby be customer owned and encouraged.

        • h4x354x0r says:

          Solar Jim has a great idea, considering the fact that the amount of landmass currently covered by human structures / pavement is about 4-5%. We can’t cover roads with solar panels, but just about everything else, we can.

          But… don’t forget about intermittency, peak load demands, transmission losses, storage inefficiencies, etc. The raw collection capacity has to be significantly over-built to produce a stable and robust power supply. Once you engineer enough capacity to overcome the drawbacks, I still believe the figure is at least 3% of landmass.

        • Joan Savage says:

          I’m with you.

          Put the supply near to the demand.

          Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

          I am bone tired of ‘solutions’ that include yet more co-option of the earth’s resources, even its surface, for human use.

    • Morten Lindhard says:

      SSolar panels on our buildings replacing southfacing roofs and walls and solar glass windows has all the area needed. Deserts has more than the rest. 10 % of Sahara could cover the need of the whole world. just to set the perspective- the win-win is that the cooling cycle off Concentrated Solar Power could be used to desalinate huge amounts of seawater desparately needed for agriculture and human life. http://www.dersertec.org. Water is a bigger need than power. 25% of agriculture is based on groundwater soon depleted. Read “Plan B” by Lester Brown World Watch Institure.

  4. fj says:

    It continues to be mind boggling the scale and depth of ramp up necessary to address climate change and most encouraging and truly exciting to watch humanity rise up to meet this greatest challenge of all times.

    • kayway says:

      agreed. education and awareness is vital. Our predecessors have taken things for granted for too long.

    • Superman1 says:

      PART 1 OF 3
      Solar and other renewables are appropriate as long-term solutions to the energy supply problem, but there is a foundational problem related to their near-term implementation. There are many concepts that have been proposed for ameliorating climate change, such as the present one, most of which involve the transition to renewables-based energy. All of these concepts will require some fossil fuel expenditure, especially at the front end where our main energy source is fossil fuels. The implicit assumption is that this ‘good’ expenditure of fossil fuels will not drive us into ‘runaway’ temperature in the transition/conversion process, and will eventually allow us to eliminate most major sources of CO2 emissions.

    • Superman1 says:

      PART 2 OF 3
      Where is the evidence for such an assumption? Any useful prediction of how much leeway we have with respect to further allowable CO2 emissions will depend on a trustworthy model of climate that includes the known major positive feedback mechanisms. Such a model has to be validated to be credible. How are such validations done? For example, consider the Rowlands model, published last year. From the Abstract in Rowlands et al paper: “We find that model versions that reproduce observed surface temperature changes over the past 50 years show global-mean temperature increases of 1.4-3 K by 2050, relative to 1961-1990, under a mid-range forcing scenario.” In the full paper, they state: “Towards the end of the century, we observe a similar relationship with the IPCC expert estimate, although by that time the uncertainty could be larger if carbon-cycle feedbacks were included in our ensemble”. They are using a model that excludes carbon-cycle feedbacks, gives good agreement with the past when there were little carbon-cycle feedbacks, and attempts to estimate the future with similar physics when there could be massive carbon-cycle feedbacks. So, it was validated after the data were generated.

    • Superman1 says:

      PART 3 OF 3
      That’s what will be required for any forward-going model that includes positive feedback mechanisms (which the Rowlands model did not). Here’s the problem. By the time enough positive feedback data for credibility has been accumulated and is available for validation, it is probably way too late for us to change direction to make a difference (except for the extremely low probability case that the feedbacks are shown to progress extremely slowly). So, even though we see these positive feedback mechanisms initiating and growing right before our eyes, none of the predictions about climate where positive feedback mechanisms could be important have any basis in evidence. All that we know is that the dire predictions of existing models (which don’t contain positive feedback mechanisms) are conservative and best-case assumptions, and reality will be worse, probably far worse. Under these conditions of high uncertainty, it seems to me the only prudent step is to insure that we leave the maximum safety factor that we can, and hope that will be adequate. This means ending fossil fuel use today, whatever the cost and sacrifice required, if we want to see our civilization continue beyond this century. First, insure we have a future; second, worry about the nature of the energy supply in that future.

      • wili says:

        In case anyone missed it, this is the much-watch video by Kevin Anderson that supports much of what Sup is saying here:


        And before anyone comes down too heavily on him, folks arguing for ‘softer’ approaches like gradually increasing carbon taxes, should keep in mind that in the world of real-politik in which we live, businesses will not go even for these soft solutions unless they think there is something worse waiting in the wings that has a good chance of being enacted that they want to avoid even more than carbon taxes.

        So for even the woefully and laughably inadequate measures of carbon taxes to make it through, we should all be supporting (or at least not destroying) more appropriate-to-the-actual-level-of-threat measures implied by Sup’s and others’ analyses.

      • Merrelyn Emery says:

        Wili, the real world includes the EU, Oz, S Korea and many others where business has accepted the carbon pricing. This is operating in tandem with other measures to replace FFs with renewables with measurable results, ME

        • wili says:

          Good point, ME. The real world US is a good bit more disfunctional that much of the rest of the world.

      • stateoftheartist says:

        Sup’s, you hit the nail on the head. From the feedbacks that we can see visibly kicking in right now, we could be seriously justified in panicking. It looks like if we could snap our fingers and fully ditch fossil fuels for renewables right this instant, the CO2 levels and temperature would probably continue to rise at an increasing rate anyway.
        We REALLY need to end the moratorium on ocean fertilisation imediately and start pulling down the CO2 to pre-industrial levels via mass photosynthetic algae farming in the oceanic gyre “desert” zones. 1 ton of iron fertiliser sinks around 10 million tons of carbon to the ocean floor, studies have shown.
        Some of the resulting blooms could be harvested and processed by existing oil refinery infrastructure with little modification as “green crude” to replace our transport fuels with bio-diesel,ethanol, and our petrochemicals with bio alternatives for plastics etc.
        And added bonus- big expansion of the entire marine foodchain in those areas to help feed the planet.

        • wili says:

          No possibility of unintended consequences there??

          • stateoftheartist says:

            there was scaremongering about “unforseen consequences” that influenced the adoption of the moratorium, sadly from enviromentalists and scientists. There’s really sod-all chance of significant problems arising- windblown iron fert is a natural process which is a neccessary part of the ocean foodchain ecology. Unfortunately oceanic phytoplankton populations have been falling over the last hundred years and the fingered causation of this is that we have been reducing the natural windblown iron fert of the oceans by irrigating and farming arid landmass.
            With the drought stress that climate change has brought to the Amazon and Stheast asian rainforests, they’ve lost their ability to sequester carbon as well. even worse they have been close to dry enough to burn uncontrollably several times in the past 5 years.
            The most voiced objections to solutions like ocean fert have been that:
            - “it might slow the phasing out of fossil fuels by reducing the panic over climate change we can see happening” – obviously we need to phase out fossils as quickly as possible and whatever we do this is still going to be obvious over the next few decades.
            -and: fury from fools who got indignant that companies were being set up with the intention of profiting thru carbon credits from saving the world, eg/ Planktos. THATS WHAT CARBON TRADING IS FOR!

  5. h4x354x0r says:

    For large, away-from-population power plants, I think large-scale “Water Splitting” deployments, with central hydrogen storage which would be used to fuel traditional generators, could really minimize the intermittency issue. A large plant could store weeks worth of hydrogen fuel, and be able to load-match very quickly.

    I don’t want plain hydrogen storage of any size near populations though. One little mistake… BOOM! Nothing left but a hole in the earth.

  6. Paul Magnus says:

    We should really get off coal…

    However… exports are expanding… https://www.facebook.com/LineInTheSands/posts/362536133841870

  7. Ken Barrows says:

    One percent of the land and what else? Not to say, of course, that solar isn’t a good idea.

  8. Lisa Wright says:

    Here is the WWF Energy Report (2011)
    Still reading it.
    One thing for climate threat, it sure “concentrates the mind wonderfully.”


  9. Anderlan says:

    0.2%: Land area that can power humanity with current solar technology.
    0.4%: Land area covered by impervious human structures.


  10. squidboy6 says:

    That piece of land already has houses on top of it so putting panels on top of that would improve the situation. Santa Barbara outlawed panels for decades until the last energy crisis when they had to give in. That’s what happens when you allow realtors to run the government; not enough water, energy, or food for local development.

    Places Santa Barbara are unsustainable during crisis because they have more development than infrastructure but they should have started in the 1970s instead.

    There are no trolls here while articles in Scientific American have the same half dozen trolls every time an article about PV or Climate Change is published. I presume Joe takes care of that. We should start an online petition to the editors of Sci Am to police their comments like they do with Nature which they publish as well. These trolls aren’t very good but they may influence the young and uniformed. Some people argue with them but their information is so inaccurate that I think that it is unwise – it only lends them credence and they often comment even without reading the article. I’m pretty sure that there aren’t that many of these people out there and what they are doing isn’t free speech, it’s almost pathological.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      Good idea, Squidboy. Denier trolls at the New York Times are bad enough, but let’s at least keep them out of the scientific magazines.

    • J4zonian says:

      In fact it is free speech. But websites are private domains and free speech doesn’t mean someone has the right to come into your house and scream absurdities at you.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        I believe it was your Justice Holmes of the Supreme Court who said that ‘free speech’ did not extend to falsely shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre. How much less so shouting ‘There is no fire. Relax and return to your seats!’, as the building is devoured by flames.

  11. prokaryotes says:

    Breaking: Cuccinelli and Dominion Move to Repeal Virginia’s Clean Electricity Standard

    Proposed legislation would harm environment and, opponents say, constitutes a confession that Dominion has accepted $77 million from ratepayers without properly fulfilling intent of current law http://grist.org/article/ken-cuccinelli-and-dominion-power-move-to-repeal-virginia-rps/

  12. Sam Clark says:

    This is the type of ambitious thinking we need and fast. Could a major expansion of solar toward 2050 be undertaken using a financial strategy where small, medium and large towns chose to invest in large scale solar projects (often far away from the towns) that would benefit their entire communities through the sale of the energy production to the grid? A single bond issue in each town would take care of the cost and the reduced energy costs for all the towns citizens would pay off the bond over a ten or twenty year period. Why not? Individuals cannot afford this. Communities can.

  13. SecularAnimist says:

    Will Fox wrote: “Most people view the alternative as communism/socialism, which has failed pretty much everywhere it’s been tried.”


    First of all, communism and socialism are at all the same thing, and are, in fact, antithetical in fundamental ways.

    Second, socialism has been “tried” in numerous western European nations, where it has not “failed” but on the contrary has been highly successful, and remains a robust and vibrant part of those nations’ political, social and economic systems.

    As for what “most people” believe, unfortunately “most people” in the USA have little or no idea of what “socialism” or “communism” actually are — many of them think that government regulation of private, for-profit business is “socialism”, which is nonsense — and they know little or nothing of the role they play in other developed, democratic nations. That’s because they are spoon-fed derogatory, hateful, demonizing cartoonish stereotypes of “socialism” and “communism” by the corporate media.

  14. J4zonian says:

    We have to stop talking about solar as if we going to put huge conglomerations of panels in the desert and transmit the power from there to everywhere else. You talk about 1% of the land and people get crazy ideas about it and start arguing against it. Decentralized power generation is the answer to many problems–energy needs, failing democracy, local economic collapse…

    Philadelphia and New York City alone have a combined 100,000 acres of rooftops that can be used for some combination of food production, energy generation and water collection. Similar huge areas of every other inhabited place could provide a substantial part of our energy needs, especially if we democratize and de-billionaire our society and start drawing a distinction between needs and indulgences. Pumped storage, ever-improving battery technology and distributed power along with a mix of wind, solar and a few other sources (waste biofuel, etc.) can supply all we need without the stereotyped use of virgin lands that’s so easy for ignorant people to oppose.

    • J4zonian says:

      oops, hit the post button too early. should read “… as if WE’RE going to…”

    • Roger Lambert says:

      Decentralization has four major problems with it. The first is that we have trying a decentralized approach for thirty years and have virtually no progress to show for it – our CO2 emissions have never been higher.

      Secondly, decentralization means individuals have to foot the upfront bills out of their own pocket. Which means their installs pretty much will only serve themselves and no one else.

      Thirdly, decentralization means installing solar on homeowners roofs. There is no more expensive way to install solar – each roof is different, they are mostly difficult projects, there is no collective bargaining, no economy of scale, no standardization of techniques or materials. The actual install – securing panels to roofs, setting up ten million redundant electronic interfaces – is by FAR the largest expense of PV.

      Fourth, decentralization means spending big money on installs everywhere. And a lot of places do not get intense, uninterrupted sunshine very much of the time. Many areas are not ideally suited for PV.

      Non centralized = large-scale centralized installations have NONE of these major problems.

      The installed cost does not come out of people’s pockets, it is assumed as national debt or bonds.

      The installed cost per megawatt is tiny compared to rooftop PV.

      Large-scale projects would be sited where available sunlight is near constant and intense all the time – the Mojave Desert, for example, has intense sunlight virtually every day, decade in, decade out.

      Large-scale solar can actually solve the AGW problem. Perhaps it is time to rethink the romance with decentralized generation – so we can actually get started solving the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible, instead of arguing about it?

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Those rooftops could also be used for albedo restoration too, methinks.

  15. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Too optimistic forecast. At best Solar and other Renewables can supplement the conventional power like coal,petroleum,gas etc. What is the installed capacity of power from Renewables now around the globe and in just 37 years such gigantic task can be achieved? What is solar share in the present energy mix compared to Wind? Let us be realistic in our forecast. People are carried away by such tall claims. Among the Renewables at present Wind is the leading option.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Wind Energy Expert
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

  16. Ava says:

    It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people in this particular topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!


  17. June Dusseau says:

    This would be wonderful for the planet earth!!

  18. Dixie says:

    Good in theory… but 1% of earths land mass would have an area 2 and 1/2 times the size of texas… plus all the support structures. and production facilities.. Diversification is the name of the game, not all in one basket so to speak

  19. GZNYC says:

    For me this is a “no brainer” – why on earth would we continue to rely on a source of energy that is going to end in 100 years (give or take a few years…)? MANY talk about the fact that they are “worried” about the future of their grandchildren and beyond… just imagine a world, say in 2200, where fossil fuels are becoming THAT MUCH MORE scarce. Imagine the panic buying and the spike in prices and maybe even “warfare”. I shudder to think that the world becomes “Thunderdome”.

    OPEC, et al, doesn’t WANT any country or society to use other resources b/c it would ruin their over-the-top lifestules in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai, etc…

    When will the WORLD WTH (wake the hell) up?!