Sunday, July 04, 2010

How efficient are plants? (part II)

Insolation at Earth's surface (the total solar irradiance, in units of W/m2):

On sunny days, about 1 kilowatt of solar radiation bathes every square meter of the earth's surface every hour. Because of the seasons and weather, the annual average for much of the united states is between 1/2 and 1/3 of this ideal "clear sky" condition.

Photosynthetically Active Radiation, or PAR, is only ~40% of that total, depending on which chlorophyll molecules are present in the plant. Because of physiological requirements, plants actually use an order of magnitude less, usually about 2% of total solar insolation. Of that, orders of magnitude less are available for conversion into biomass. Contrast that with commercial solar arrays that can capture about 20% of the energy in solar radiation!

Either way, the rest of that kW is either reflected or converted to heat...and heat makes the wind blow. A 20mph wind contains enough energy to generate 1 kilowatt per square meter for every hour it blows.

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