If solar power is the purest form of renewable energy known, then how much solar power have we got? The answer to this question, when considered alongside how efficiently we can convert raw sunshine into usable power, helps determine whether or not it is realistic to consider solar energy as a viable alternative to conventional energy sources.
In full sun, you can safely assume about 100 watts of solar energy per square foot. If you assume 12 hours of sun per day, this equates to 438,000 watt-hours per square foot per year. Based on 27,878,400 square feet per square mile, sunlight bestows a whopping 12.2 trillion watt-hours per square mile per year.
With these assumptions, figuring out how much solar energy hits the entire planet is relatively simple. 12.2 trillion watt-hours converts to 12,211 gigawatt-hours, and based on 8,760 hours per year, and 197 million square miles of earth’s surface (including the oceans), the earth receives about 274 million gigawatt-years of solar energy, which translates to an astonishing 8.2 million “quads” of Btu energy per year.
In case you haven’t heard, a “quad Btu” refers to one quadrillion British Thermal Units of energy, a common term used by energy economists. The entire human race currently uses about 400 quads of energy (in all forms) per year. Put another way, the solar energy hitting the earth exceeds the total energy consumed by humanity by a factor of over 20,000 times.
Clearly there is enough solar energy available to fulfill all the human race’s energy requirements now, and for all practical purposes, forever. The key is developing technologies that efficiently convert solar power into usable energy in a cost-effective manner.
For energy conversion constants a good website is Energy Conversion, to help elucidate this data.