One thing is for certain: humans will continue to need and use energy. And lots of it. We can try to advocate for changing behaviors and lowering your energy consumption. But what if on top of those personal changes, we got smarter about the types of energy we use? It would take a big shift to stop our reliance on non-renewable resources completely, but the truth is there are much better options out there. Renewable resources offer nearly limitless energy potential and it’s up to us to capitalize on it.

What do we mean when we say renewable vs. non-renewable energy?

Simply stated, renewable energy is energy that can be replenished. Non-renewable energy is finite. Here are the different types of energy sources and the categories they fall into:

Renewable energies: solar, hydropower, biomass, geothermal, wind
Non-renewable energies: oil, coal, nuclear, natural gas

If you’d like to explore in greater detail information on each of these energies, their specific statistics, how they’re used and more, read our in-depth blog on renewables vs. non-renewables.

Non-renewable sources have been used for energy the longest and you’ll encounter them on a regular basis. But unfortunately, they won’t be around forever.

Why are renewable sources of energy better than non-renewable sources?

Non-renewable resources typically have a worse impact on the environment because their emissions pollute the air and contribute to climate change.

Chart depicting the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by energy source

Non-renewable resources are also finite. This means they are of limited supply and will eventually run out. And at the rate we are using up these precious resources, this can happen in a shorter timeline than you may think. Resources like coal for example can potentially be gone in just a few more generations. Natural gas and oil could be gone sooner than that.

bar graph showing the number of years each fossil fuel has left

Unlike renewable resources that are naturally replenished, non-renewable resources are not. There isn’t potential to generate it any more on a human timescale.

Let’s discuss this “potential” and what we mean in terms of energy potential.

Renewable energy potential vs non-renewable energy potential (visualized)

infographic that shows the renewable energy potential vs nonrenewable energy potential

[This chart breaks down how much energy potential renewables provide in comparison to non-renewables.]

In this chart, renewable energies show the potential amounts that can be generated each year, whereas the nonrenewables show the total, set amount of the resource left on the planet.

  • Although the largest non-renewable bubble shows there is a bigger amount of total coal reserves, at the U.S.’s current rate of energy consumption and dependence on coal, that will run out in 100 years under some projections.
  • Renewables can provide their per-year numbers shown, forever.

What the world needs is a robust clean energy mix that takes the pressure off of finite resources. Solar energy, as you can see, is a huge part of this equation, and it will take increasing its availability (and technological advances) to make that possible.

How much solar power potential is there?

This begs the question: is it possible to power all of humanity’s energy needs with just the sun? The answer is an overwhelming yes. The sun is, by far, the renewable resource with the largest energy potential.

In a single hour, the amount of power from the sun that strikes the Earth is more than the entire world consumes in a year.

Sunlight is pretty much unlimited, as we don’t have to worry about our sun dying out for another 5 billion years.

This means our sun has the potential to generate over 174,000,000,000 terajoules of energy each year.


To put that into perspective, humans use around 26,000,000 terajoules of energy each year. At this rate, in one year our sun could provide energy for around 6,600 years.

How much solar energy do we need?

However, as we stated before, we will need to install a lot more solar around the world to meet the demand of the world’s energy use. Or, we’re going to have to get a lot smarter about the way we harvest our solar energy.

If we wanted to only look at America’s energy needs, the U.S. would require over 3 billion kilowatts of solar power each year. A typical American home uses around 10,715 kilowatthours (kWh), an average of about 893 kWh per month.

Graph Showing the U.S. Energy Consumption By Source


How many solar panels do we need?

So how many solar panels is that exactly? If we were to one day meet all of our energy needs with solar, the nation would need solar panels on just 22,000 square miles of the nation’s total land area. This is roughly the size of Lake Michigan.

How many solar panels do we need to power the world?

A simple calculation would be around 23 billion solar panels. However, this is a very complicated question and answer. Watch this entertaining and informative video on this subject.

How much solar energy do we currently have?

In 2020, the world reached a total solar PV capacity that amounted to 773.2 gigawatts.
Last year alone, 133 gigawatts of solar PV was installed globally to reach this new total.

In the United States, 3% of all electricity was generated by solar in 2020, and that number is projected to rise to 20% by 2050 according to the EIA.

While it’s clear things are trending in solar’s favor, we still have a long way to go to reach 100%.

Moving Solar Forward

In addition to space – money, technology, and push back from “big energy,” have previously been roadblocks for the solar movement. But that’s changing, too.

Solar is continuing to become more affordable, with the cost to install solar dropping by more than 70% over the last decade.

Technology has also drastically improved and solar panels are more efficient than ever. Solar panel efficiency is the percentage of sunlight a panel can convert into electricity. In the 1950’s, solar panel efficiency was sitting at an underwhelming 8% efficiency. Now, most solar panels operate with around 15-20% efficiency, with the highest efficiency panels being around 23%. Efficiency continues to increase as new models are developed and technology improves.

The world is starting to be on the right track with their goals and mindset surrounding the importance of renewable energy. Last year, more than 82% of all new electricity capacity added was renewable. Of that, solar and wind accounted for 91% of new renewables.

Graph showing the renewable energy capacity added in 2020

Harness the power of the sun for your home

If you’re considering solar but not sure if it would make a big impact on the world’s energy mix, think again! The more homeowners who go solar thanks to increased affordability and efficiency making solar panels worth it, the more pressure can be relieved from our environment. The sun has the greatest potential of all renewable energies to power our world cleanly and effectively. If you’ve been considering going solar or would like to learn more about how solar panels work, schedule a free home consultation.