I have written several times about whether or not the Earth is a closed system [see for example: ‘Is Earth a closed system? Does it matter‘ on December 10th, 2014] & ‘Revisiting closed systems in Nature‘ on October 5th, 2016). The Earth is not a closed thermodynamic system because there is energy transfer between the Earth and its surroundings as illustrated by the schematic diagram. Although, the total incoming solar radiation (341 Watts/sq. metre (W/m²)) is balanced by the sum of the reflected solar radiation (102 W/m²) and the outgoing longwave radiation (239 W/m²); so, there appears to be no net inflow or outflow of energy. To put these values into perspective, the world energy use per capita in 2014 was 1919 kilograms oil equivalent, or 2550 Watts (according to World Bank data); hence, in crude terms we each require 16 m² of the Earth’s surface to generate our energy needs from the solar energy reaching the ground (161 W/m²), assuming that we have 100% efficient solar cells available. That’s a big assumption because the best efficiencies achieved in research labs are around 48% and for production solar cells it’s about 26%.
There are 7.6 billion of us, so at 16 m² each, we need 120,000 square kilometres of 100% efficient solar cells – that’s about the land area of Greece, or about 500,000 square kilometres with current solar cells, which is equivalent to the land area of Spain. I picked these countries because, compared to Liverpool, the sun always shines there; but of course it doesn’t, and we would need more than this half million square kilometres of solar cells distributed around the world to allow the hours of darkness and cloudy days.
At the moment, China has the most generating capacity from photovoltaic (PV) cells at 78.07 GigaWatts or about 25% of global PV capacity and Germany is leading in terms of per capita generating capacity at 511 Watts per capita, or 7% of their electricity demand. Photovoltaic cells have their own ecological footprint in terms of the energy and material required for their production but this is considerably lower than most of our current sources of energy [see, for example Emissions from photovoltaic life cycles by Fthenakis et al, 2008].
Trenberth KE, Fasullo JT & Kiehl J, Earth’s global energy budget, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, March 2009, 311-324, https://doi.org/10.1175/2008BAMS2634.1.
World Bank Databank: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.PCAP.KG.OE
Nield D, Scientists have broken the efficiency record for mass-produced solar panels, Science Alert, 24th March 2017.
2016 Snapshot of Global Photovoltaic Markets, International Energy Agency Report IEA PVPS T1-31:2017.
Fthenakis VM, Kim HC & Alsema E, Emissions from photovoltaic life cycles, Environmental Science Technology, 42:2168-2174, 2008.