Military or Solar? You decide.

Recently, there was an article about Morocco building a large-scale solar power plant in Ouarzazate at a cost of $9 billion. The concentrated solar power plant is more expensive than the more commonly used photovoltaic cells, but it has a longer operational life. The finished plant's energy output is predicted to be 580MW — enough to provide electricity to a million homes.*1

I recently read an article saying that, in 2014, the United States of America spent $610 billion, which is around 3.5% of its GDP, on the military. That amount is larger than 7 next largest military budgets combined. *2

That got me thinking: what if?

Morocco’s yearly military expenditure is $1.1 billion, or 0.4% of its GDP. That means that the solar project will cost Morocco 8 times more than what they spend on their military. *3

If the US would do the same, they would spend 8 x 610 = $4880 billion on solar energy, and they would produce 8 x 580 = 4.64 GW of solar electricity.

Those numbers are a bit unrealistic (though everything depends what your priorities are), so I decided to find a more realistic approach.

If the US would have the same military to GDP ratio as Morocco, then the US would spend 0.4% of $17.419 trillion (GDP) — around $6.9 billion annually. We all know that would not be possible, as the US would not stay competitive with other military forces on the globe.

Instead, what if we would reduce annual military spending, which would allow the US to stay on top but would also reduce current expenditures?
If the US would drop its expenditure to $250 billion per year, it would still be the leading country in terms of annual military budget — nearly $34 billion ahead of 2nd-placed China, with an annual expenditure of $216 billion. Also, it’s important to remember that, in the same list of 7 countries behind the US, there are 3 countries that are already members of NATO: the United Kingdom, France, and Germany — with a combined expenditure of $169 billion.

The “reduction” could free up $360 billion, and, if we would use that money for a similar solar project to the one in Morocco, we could build 360/9 = 40 solar plants of the same size and capacity.

The information graphics calculation above was done with the focus on average household size of 5 people for Morocco and 2.54 people for the United States. *5 However, those numbers can be misleading, because their habits and energy consumption are not exactly the same.

First, we need to find how many hours of sunlight Morocco has; in the desert where the solar plant is placed, that number is around 3600 hours of sunshine per year. *6 In the US, the best comparison is the Mojave Desert *7, which has 3625 hours of sunshine per year — more or less the same number.

In order to get the same total output as the solar plant in Morocco, we need to multiply solar plant power against the number of sunny hours to figure out how much this plant will produce:

580MW x 3600 hours = 2088 million kWh = 2088 GWh ~ 2 TWh.

Now, how much energy is that really?

The current US population is around 320 million people, but we will use a different measure: according to existing data, there are 128,680,416 residential customers in the US and on average residential utility customer use a 911 kWh of electricity per month. *8

The total energy needed is 128,680,416 customers x 911 kWh * 12 months = 1,406,734,307,712 kWh
(1,406,734,307,712 kWh = 1,406,734 GWh = 1406 TWh = 1.4 PWh)

This means that Morocco’s solar plant is only enough for 190,998 US homes — significantly less than the article says — and that is because Moroccans use less energy.

Using these numbers, the US would need 674 solar power plants (Ouarzazate power plant size) to satisfy all residential US needs. This would mean no usage of any other fuel: no coal, oil, nuclear, wind, or hydro.

In order to keep the numbers real, let’s assume that we do not want to replace all the sources of electricity but just those that pollute the most, like coal, which has a 39% share of US electric energy production. *9

To replace coal entirely, we would need ~263 (674 * 39%) solar power plants.

Earlier, we calculated that if we would spare $360 billion on military expenditure, we could build 40 solar plants (360/9).

Therefore if we divide 263 with 40 we get 6.575. That is the number of years we would need to make a similar $360 billion savings on our military expenditure in order to replace coal completely.

In just six and a half years, we could have a clean, renewable source of energy that would replace all coal usage, and for the next 30 years we would not need to hassle with the digging, pollution, transport, burning, and land erosion that are otherwise all part of our daily lives with coal.

These numbers are applicable, if we continue wasting our energy in the same way as we do now, and also if nothing else would change from the point-of-view of technology. Real number should be more optimistic, if we take into account that technology will advance and that production efficiency, grid efficiency, and our home efficiency will improve over the time. Also, bear in mind currently we waste almost 60% of all the energy we generate or consume. *10

Also, please keep in mind that some other countries consume significantly less energy than the US, such as Denmark (503 kWh per month, on average) or the United Kingdom (454 kWh per month, on average) — almost half of what the average household consumes in the United States. We also have to take into account that consumption numbers can vary significantly, depending upon the climate and the efficiency of local homes.

According to oil company executives, oil is going to be a major energy source through the year 2100 and beyond *11, and that is not acceptable by any standards — especially knowing that the current Middle East crises is tightly connected to oil and that this can easily push us to World War III, which could wipe us all from the face of the planet, long before we reach the year 2020.

The dilemma is quite simple: are we going to continue investing into the tools of war — for the big war that no one can win, but everyone can lose — or should we try helping and befriending others and continue as brothers?

So, the question is: would you rather consider 5 to 10 years of military reduction and shifting toward solar or...

“If we can find the money to kill people,
we can find the money to help people.”
— Tony Benn

Notes & References:

1. Morocco's MEGA PLANT will power a million homes using sunlight: Advanced solar tech provides energy even after dark

2. List of countries by military expenditures

3. Moroccan defence spending to reach US$4.5 billion by 2018

4. Country facts for United States and Morocco

5. Number of people per household in the United States from 1960 to 2015

Morocco - Average household size

6. Solar power in Morocco

7. Mojave Desert

8. How much electricity does an American home use?

9. What is U.S. electricity generation by energy source?

10. The new 'peak oil'? A dollar invested in solar yields more energy than a dollar invested in oil

11. Energy in the United States