An open letter to Steve Levitt

Now, that’s the total electric energy consumed during the year, and you can turn that into the rate of energy consumption (measured in Watts, just like the world was one big light bulb) by dividing kilowatt hours by the number of hours in a year, and multiplying by 1000 to convert kilowatts into watts. The answer is two trillion Watts, in round numbers. How much area of solar cells do you need to generate this? On average, about 200 Watts falls on each square meter of Earth’s surface, but you might preferentially put your cells in sunnier, clearer places, so let’s call it 250 Watts per square meter. With a 15% efficiency, which is middling for present technology the area you need is

2 trillion Watts/(.15 X 250. Watts per square meter)

or 53,333 square kilometers. That’s a square 231 kilometers on a side, or about the size of a single cell of a typical general circulation model grid box. If we put it on the globe, it looks like this:

Globe

So already you should be beginning to suspect that this is a pretty trivial part of the Earth’s surface, and maybe unlikely to have much of an effect on the overall absorbed sunlight. In fact, it’s only 0.01% of the Earth’s surface. The numbers I used to do this calculation can all be found in Wikipedia, or even in a good paperbound World Almanac.

But we should go further, and look at the actual amount of extra solar energy absorbed. As many reviewers of Superfreakonomics have noted, solar cells aren’t actually black, but that’s not the main issue. For the sake of argument, let’s just assume they absorb all the sunlight that falls on them. In my business, we call that “zero albedo” (i.e. zero reflectivity). As many commentators also noted, the albedo of real solar cells is no lower than materials like roofs that they are often placed on, so that solar cells don’t necessarily increase absorbed solar energy at all. Let’s ignore that, though. After all, you might want to put your solar cells in the desert, and you might try to cool the planet by painting your roof white. The albedo of desert sand can also be found easily by doing a Google search on “Albedo Sahara Desert,” for example. Here’s what you get:

GoogleSand

So, let’s say that sand has a 50% albedo. That means that each square meter of black solar cell absorbs an extra 125 Watts that otherwise would have been reflected by the sand (i.e. 50% of the 250 Watts per square meter of sunlight). Multiplying by the area of solar cell, we get 6.66 trillion Watts.

That 6.66 trillion Watts is the “waste heat” that is a byproduct of generating electricity by using solar cells. All means of generating electricity involve waste heat, and fossil fuels are not an exception. A typical coal-fired power plant only is around 33% efficient, so you would need to release 6 trillion Watts of heat to burn the coal to make our 2 trillion Watts of electricity. That makes the waste heat of solar cells vs. coal basically a wash, and we could stop right there, but let’s continue our exercise in thinking with numbers anyway.

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