Nikola Tesla once pondered the thought of harnessing the power of lightning to transform it to sable electric energy. Upon breaking down the shear physics of this theory, he quickly realized it was impractical and most likely unattainable.

There are roughly one and-a-half billion lightning flashes each year that occur in our atmosphere. Approximately one in four of these bolts blasts the ground. An average bolt of lightning, striking from cloud to ground, contains roughly one billion joules of energy. Even though that equates to about 250 kilowatt-hours of electricity, the average house uses an average of 1,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month. That means the average house in America would need 3 to 5 lightning strikes per month to balance out the electricity they use. That works out to 40 to 50 times per year.

Using that ratio, every bolt of lightning in the world could only power 8% of homes in the United States. Then there are also the technical challenges of actually harnessing and using the electricity generated by a lightning bolt. First off, knowing when and where lightning is going to strike is random at best. Building 500 foot towers too capture the strikes would be similar to playing darts blindfolded.

Florida, is heralded as the lightning capital of the world, with roughly 10 lightning strikes per kilometer per year. So, even if we set up a 500 foot tower for every 1 kilometer area, and each tower was able to capture and retain all 10 of the lightning strikes for the entire year, we could still only produce enough electricity to power 2 houses for a month. And that is assuming that our newly acquired power storage technology could retain 100% of the energy from each bolt.

So despite the world eternally searching for the next great breakthrough on how to create clean, carbon free energy, lightning is not a viable option. Not when you consider that harnessing 1 hour of sunlight emitted on the earth could power the entire world for an entire year.

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Matt Helland Senior Vice President — North American Energy Advisory


Originally published at on October 20, 2015.

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