buildings behind a solar panel

Elon Musk Reiterates the Sun's Ability to Power Absolutely Everything

Aniket

Written by qualified solar engineer Aniket. Last updated:

“That free fusion reactor (sun) in the sky conveniently converts ~4 million tons of mass into energy every second. We just need to catch an extremely tiny amount of it to power all of civilization.” This was a tweet made on October 16, 2020 by the iconic businessman Elon Musk.

The tweet came in response to a tweet by another Twitter user who shared the news that solar is now officially the cheapest power source almost everywhere in the world. Musk is widely known as a champion for sustainable technology. His products include the world’s highest-selling electric vehicles, solar panels, solar roof tiles, re-usable rockets, etc. Since then, the tweet has been liked by over 32,000 people.

The Sun’s Potential

solar panels on the windows of each building

How much truth does Musk’s tweet have? Can an ‘extremely tiny’ portion of sunlight power all of civilization? The sun gives out tremendous amounts of energy, and a small portion of it reaches the Earth. This small portion is still a massive quantity, specifically 1.74 x 1017 watts or 174 quadrillion watts. That is a lot of zeroes and a lot of energy.

It is often said that even if only 1% of the land area is fitted with solar panels, it will generate enough power to satisfy the needs of the entire human population. As per data from Global Energy Statistical Yearbook, our total energy consumption in 2019 was over 23,000 TWh.

After some calculations, we can have a number for the size of solar plants to power the entire world. This number is 18 TW. Like Musk says, this is a “tiny” portion of the available 1.74 x 1017 watts.

The Safest Nuclear Generator

The interesting part is where Musk points out the sun to be a ‘fusion reactor’. This wording automatically draws a comparison with nuclear power here on Earth. It is now widely accepted that solar energy is better than fossil fuels such as coal and oil in terms of environmental impact and financial numbers. However, there is still some debate on whether nuclear power makes more sense than solar.

Nuclear power uses a fission reaction wherein heavy atoms such as those of Uranium are split, causing conversion of some of its mass to energy. This produces tremendous amounts of energy and is often termed as renewable, owing to the tiny amounts of fuel required per unit of energy generated.

The overall emissions from nuclear power are also quite low and comparable to that of solar. The major difference, however, is the fact that solar power is remarkably safer than nuclear power. Some events in the past of nuclear reactors subject to accidents have caused significant damage and have cost lives.

Inside the sun, a similar reaction takes place. Although the reaction is fusion, instead of splitting, atoms combine and generate power, it is ultimately a type of nuclear reaction. It is calculated that the sun will last for another 5 billion years, and it makes a lot more sense to use this far safer nuclear reactor than building new ones near societies.

Musk – The Constant Solar Advocate

solar panel farm in the desert

Musk’s love for solar is evident not only from his recent tweet. In 2019, Musk had tweeted about the amount of solar needed to power the USA. He tweeted the following: “Solar power is a Gigawatt per square km! All you need is a 100 by 100-mile patch in a deserted corner of Arizona, Texas, or Utah (or anywhere) to more than power the entire USA.”

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