There is a lot of misinformation about renewable energy floating around. Since one of our missions at The Motley Fool is to educate our readers about what's really going on, I think we need to clear up just how big the opportunity is for renewable energy -- solar in particular.
Bill Gates caught my attention earlier this month, saying he thinks solar power is "cute" and, according to fellow Fool Rich Smith, Gates thinks even other sources of renewable power don't have a lot of promise. Supposedly, "green" advocates "argue we might satisfy 10% of our electricity demand with wind ... and geothermal and biofuels combined," Rich wrote.
Let's take a closer look.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration -- or EIA -- wind, biomass, and geothermal already account for more than 5% of electricity generation in the U.S. That's before offshore wind generates a single kilowatt-hour of power, and much of the prime wind land goes undeveloped because of a lack of transmission lines. Wind, geothermal, and biofuels won't ever generate 100% of our electricity, but it's easy to see how wind alone could generate significantly more than 10% of our electricity. And that doesn't include the elephant in the room that Bill Gates is dismissing.
Get your shades ready
One common misconception about solar power is that it will never amount to a significant portion of our power generation. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Solar energy is the most abundant source of energy on Earth, and as converting it to electricity becomes more economical, we'll start to realize just how powerful it is.
To do a little case study showing solar's power, I've taken the Mojave Desert in the southwestern United States as an example of one place we could generate a lot of solar energy. The desert is 25,000 square miles (16 million acres), or about 0.66% of the total landmass in the United States, and isn't land most people would miss (sorry, Sierra Club).
In the chart below, I used existing projects by First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR ) , Brightsource, and SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA ) to calculate just how much energy we could generate from solar power in this relatively small area. I then compared it to EIA data from February, when we consumed 312,334 thousand megawatt-hours of electricity in the U.S.
Thousand MWh Potential per Day
Percent of U.S. Consumption
20% capacity factor used for First Solar, 30% capacity factor used for SunPower and Brightsource. Capacity factor and acre/MW will change based on a variety of factors for each project.
As you can see, even using the least-efficient solar panels from First Solar would generate a majority of the electrical power we need. A SunPower plant with sun trackers, based on the plant it is building with NRG Energy, could generate more than two and a half times the power we need.
Chinese solar giants like JA Solar (Nasdaq: JASO ) , LDK Solar (NYSE: LDK ) , and Suntech Power (NYSE: STP ) would generate power somewhere between First Solar and SunPower in the same analysis. The bottom line is, solar power easily has the capability to generate enough electricity to power the entire country.
Cute is fine with me
Of course, solar power isn't a silver bullet today. There's no way to get solar energy from the Mojave Desert to New York City with current technology. But firms like A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE ) are trying to make battery storage feasible for renewable power plants.
Ironically, Gates may help the cause by investing in technology that could make energy storage viable on a large scale. Gates has put money into a company called Liquid Metal Battery, which is hoping to make energy storage on a massive scale financially viable. Solar may be "cute," but Bill Gates is funding a potential solution to the biggest obstacle to its mass adoption.
Foolish bottom line
The opportunity in renewable energy, particularly solar, is bigger than most people imagine and dismissing it with offhanded comments like solar being "cute" only helps perpetuate the misinformation surrounding the industry. If solar power wasn't viable, oil giant Total (NYSE: TOT ) wouldn't have invested billions of dollars in SunPower. Venture capital firms wouldn't be falling over themselves to fund greentech startups. And I could jump on the bandwagon with those dismissing solar instead of trying to reveal how big the opportunity really is.
In this Fool's opinion, solar power is here to stay, no matter what Gates has to say. You can educate yourself, decide if the investment is right for you, and hang on for the ride -- or get out of the way. Solar may not power your home today or tomorrow, but eventually it will creep its way into your life and you won't even notice the difference.
That doesn't mean solar is always a wise investment -- particularly lately -- but we can't ignore the opportunity.
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