The amount of energy from the sun that falls on Earth's surface is enormous. All the energy stored in Earth's reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas is matched by the energy from just 20 days of sunshine. Outside Earth's atmosphere, the sun's energy contains about 1,300 watts per square meter. About one-third of this light is reflected back into space, and some is absorbed by the atmosphere (in part causing winds to blow).

By the time it reaches Earth's surface, the energy in sunlight has fallen to about 1,000 watts per square meter at noon on a cloudless day. Averaged over the entire surface of the planet, 24 hours per day for a year, each square meter collects the approximate energy equivalent of almost a barrel of oil each year, or 4.2 kilowatt-hours of energy every day.

This figure varies by location and weather patterns. Deserts, with very dry air and little cloud cover, receive the most sun—more than six kilowatt-hours per day per square meter. Northern climes, such as that of Boston, get closer to 3.6 kilowatt-hours. Sunlight varies by season as well, with some areas receiving very little sunshine in the winter. Seattle in December, for example, gets only about 0.7 kilowatt-hours per day.

These figures represent the maximum available solar energy that can be captured and used, but solar collectors capture only a portion of this, depending on their efficiency. For example, a one square meter solar electric panel with an efficiency of 15 percent would produce about one kilowatt-hour of electricity per day in Arizona.