Rooftop solar power is a great way for individuals to save money and achieve energy independence. But for solar power to take off on a larger scale, it’s going to take a lot more than a few panels on rooftops. We’ll need solar farms — huge arrays of solar panels capable of capturing and distributing massive amounts of energy.
The map above shows the distribution of solar energy that can be harvested across the United States. The areas in red and orange are where utility-scale solar power, capable of competing with established power sources, are going to develop in a big way, according to Michael Gorton, founder and CEO of Principal Solar, a company dedicated to bringing utility-scale solar to the market.
These areas correspond roughly with the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts and parts of the Chihuahan Desert in the southwestern US — perfect places for a solar farm.
“For utility-scale solar, you want to put it in a desert,” Gorton said. “The Southwestern desert, from Midland, Texas to Needles, California, gets a very reliable, very predictable amount of sunlight.”
Gorton thinks solar could provide up to 15% of the US’s energy needs in the next 10 or 15 years.
Gorton’s projections for solar power are notably less radical than someone like futurist Ray Kurzweil, who predicted recently that solar power will be unlimited and free in 20 years.
Even 15% would be a massive improvement; solar power accounted for about 0.25% of US energy consumption in 2013.
But there’s a hitch: “To get solar higher than 15%, we need to find a way to move it around or to store it — but storage costs money,” Gorton told Business Insider.
Natural gas would make a good complement to solar power, Gorton added, because it doesn’t have this storage problem. “From a technology perspective, natural gas power plants can provide base load, running 24 hours per day, while solar provide peak power during the hottest time of day and the highest usage time of the year,” he said.
In principle, Gorton said, you could power the entire country with the sunshine that falls on the desert in Brewster County in Texas alone.”That’s probably not going to happen,” he said, “but it represents a huge opportunity for developers who are interested in clean energy.”
If a massive solar farm in Brewster County is ever combined with batteries for storage and backup — or perhaps wireless transmission using radio or laser technology — the power industry as it exists now will be in serious trouble.