We can't think about this investment in our future by what the price tag has written on it. We don't think about any other aspect of our economy that way. When we take on massive projects like highways, rails, or communications systems, we employ people and we help our economy to grow and prosper. We recirculate money invested in solar back into economies when installers spend their paychecks and solar energy companies grow. Installing solar panels is a stimulus, not a "cost."
We were recently contacted by Tech Insider with a request to use our Surface Area Require to Power the World with Solar information graphic in a new video that they have produced. You can see the piece here.
While the graphic interpretation of our original is really impressive, we are disappointed by the second half of the video that focuses on cost. The number provided by EnergySage and quoted in the video is $294 quadrillion. That is an obscenely large number. It sends the wrong message—that it will be impossible to achieve a 100% renewable energy future, and/or that we need to wait until the cost goes down. That is absolutely incorrect and we do not have time to wait.
When we agreed to let Tech Insider use our information graphic, we asked that cost not be a part of the piece for the reasons you can read in our email below to Rebecca Harrington on June 1st. She had asked us "how much do you think it would cost to construct that many solar panels?" We refused to answer the question, so she found someone who would. From our email:
...The question about cost is far more complicated than a dollar figure for four reasons that come to mind.
1. With any information graphic designed to convey a simple idea like this one, it must make decisions on what to focus on. In this case we were (for the sake of argument) ignoring other energy sources and energy system efficiency improvements (by far the easiest way to transition from carbon economies is to use less energy per capita). We ignored wind power, biofuel, hydro, wave, tidal, and all other sustainable energy sources that would form a significant part of a well-balanced post carbon energy economy. This is not something we recommend, it's just more complicated to convey all of that information in a single image. With a healthy mix of sustainable technologies powering our world, solar may comprise 20–40% of the mix.
2. If we do convert absolutely everything to solar, it will require more than just the panels themselves. It will also require storage systems and smart grids to manage power fluctuation. It will require nationalization of utility management and decentralization of energy production. This has complicated effects on cost estimation. On one hand it adds to cost because of the need for batteries, other storage mechanisms, and new power electronics. On the other hand, the efficiency of a 100% electric and distributed energy world would be far greater than a fossil fuel driven one in which so much energy is wasted at every level due to the inefficiencies of combustion power and centralized production.
3. Cost is not a useful measurement for complex economic systems and public infrastructures. Looking at it one way (the wrong way), converting to 100% renewable energy worldwide could cost trillions of dollars. But producing the more than one billion cars that we all drive and the highways we all drive them on cost us all easily ten times more than that. We shouldn't think about this investment in our future by what the price tag has written on it. We don't think about any other aspect of our economy that way. When we take on massive projects, we employ people and we help our economy to grow. We recirculate the "construction cost" back into economies when construction workers spend their paychecks. It is a stimulus, not a cost. How much did it cost to give more than half the world a personal cell phone within a span of ten years? We didn't ask the question because all along the way, companies were earning a profit by doing it. The same applies to solar panels.
4. The cost saved by eliminating fossil fuel extraction/combustion and the environmental/human health consequences of pollution and other externalities also must be factored into the equation. This will also be in the multi-trillions. When all is factored in, the answer is more likely that it will save money.
In summary, "how much will it cost" is just the wrong question to ask.
The right question to ask (once we accept that climate change is a massive problem that we must solve in the next couple of decades and solar is a powerful part of the solution) is how do we incentivize individuals and companies to want to purchase solar panels and install them in their backyards and on their rooftops? This takes top-down public policy action with incredible dividends (not costs) when we reach a point where all of our energy is generated for free by the sun (and wind, and bio, and water, etc.).
Another valid question is what will be the visual impact on our land and our built environment, and the environmental impact from the transition. These are the questions that the LAGI project is focused on asking and inspiring people to bring innovative solutions towards answering.
It's great to have more people understand the modest land use requirements for our renewable energy future, and we're thrilled to be picked up by Tech Insider, but the video that they have produced is providing dangerously misleading information.