Elon Musk is making the rounds again after paying a record amount in taxes, but while I admire his intelligence, candor, and entrepreneurial vigor, his math seems a little fishy when it comes to solar power. He had a great interview with the new kings of satire Babylon Bee where he gave some of his thoughts on solar power.
“100 square miles of solar panels could power the United States”
The key word in that is “could” because it’s not going to happen with current technology.
That was the quote that got me really thinking about this. I spent 20+ years of my life with an energy expert (my father) and correct calculations mattered. He spent most of his career successfully working with Fortune 1000 manufacturers to drastically reduce their energy costs. We spent a lot of hours talking about energy, mostly with me asking lots of questions.
To that note, let’s look at the practicality of solar energy right now using some current projects. Agua Caliente Solar Project is one out in Arizona. It sits on roughly 4 square miles and generates 727 GWh per year using 5.2 million solar panels. With that in mind, my family is a high energy consumer, using about 18 MWh a year. According to Pepco, that’s 57% more than similar homes in the area. So, let’s assume that the average household is using 12 MWh here in DC, that 4 square miles would power a little more than 60,000 homes. That’s good for 1/5th the homes that need it.
The Solar Star power plant in California is another one. It sits on 5 square miles, uses 1.7 million solar panels from SunPower, and generates 1,663 GWh per year. It feeds power to 255,000 homes, likely those that are still using traditional dirty energy for most of their needs. What’s really interesting is that this plant cost an estimated $9 billion, and if left to rely solely on solar, it would mean ~138,000 homes powered by solar.
The math does not add up in real life.
100 square miles would be around 20 to 25 of these plants. Maybe there is some economies to scale, but what it looks like is that when a solar farm gets bigger, the costs get exponentially greater. 25 plants powering 100,000 homes is a far cry from the entire United States by an order of magnitude.
I’m not saying that Musk is lying to pump up his efforts with Tesla, just that he’s not looking at real life in how people would be forced to use unreliable energy and at what cost. This 100 square miles could cost anywhere $50 and $250 billion. That would mean electricity bills of $166 to $833 to pay for it in a decade. My average bill was around $100 in 2020.
Extrapolate that out to the 140 million households in the United States, and you’re looking at an investment north of $15 trillion, when we already have very reliable energy that doesn’t cost that much. All the government subsidies are likely only going to drive costs up when we eventually switch over to solar power, because yes… it’s renewable for these big organizations that own the solar farms and can reap the rewards for the cost of maintenance. Only time will tell, but I’d say stick to single home use and get panels from SolarCity (Tesla owned) and possibly batteries when they’re able to effectively power your life. One thing is certain, humans will need more energy in the future.