An inquisitive reader recently asked a curious question on Facebook: Does a bolt of lightning provide enough energy to power a town? I don’t know, but there is a way to get a fair estimate. Let’s find out how many volts are in a lightning strike:
From articles in Windpower Engineering & Development, we learn that lightning bolts carry from 5 kA to 200 kA and voltages vary from 40 kV to 120 kV. So if we take some averages, say, 100 kA and 100 kV, this bolt would carry this much power, P:
P = 100×103 A x 100 x 103 V
= 10,000 x 106 VA or Watts
= 1 x 1010 Watts
Recall that 1010 Watts is 10,000,000,000 or 10 billion Watts.
Now assume this energy is released in 1 sec. So the power is:
1010 W-sec. On your electric bill, you’ll see you pay for Watt-hours or Wh. So let’s convert W-sec to Wh:
Pl = 1010 Ws x 1 hr/3600 s
Pl = 1/36 x 108 Wh
= 0.0277 x 108
= 2.7 x 106 Wh or Watt-hour per our average lightning bolt.
But can that power a town? And if so, for how long?
How much power does a single house consume? Again we have to play with averages. So let’s assume one house needs 2,000 Watts/hour to keep the frig, furnace, computer, and all things plugged in going. In one day, 24 hours, the house consumes
Ph = 2,000 Watts x 24 hr.
= 48,000 Wh
So if we divide the power draw for the house into the power of a lightning bolt, we’ll have the number of houses that bolt can power:
N = 2.7 x 106 Wh per bolt / 4.8 x 104 Wh/house
= 0.5625 x 102
= 56 houses/bolt of lightning for one day. So the answer to the original question is that a big bolt could power a small, 56-house town for a day.
That assumes we can catch all of that average bolt of lightning in a large capacitor. If you assume a capture efficiency, that would add a few more calculations. Still, the original question is intriguing.
If you wish to take this math experiment a step further, consider how often the U.S. is struck with lightning each day. NOAA online says 22 million cloud-to-ground strikes per year.
If any of you EEs would like to comment or correct my assumptions or math, I welcome you to do so.
Filed Under: News
Dexter Baha says
Is there any country in the world that utilzes Lightning bolt energy?
RE: to Moko Kenya about mimicking clouds:
I did some research on this a few years back and the US gov was doing a lot of cloud-mimicking tests back in the 50’s & 60’s. Initial results apparently were surprisingly successful, but then I couldn’t find any more (publicly available) info on further research. There’s also info online about countries creating rain clouds strategically to avoid droughts in crop-heavy areas. Makes you wonder the actual capabilities that exist nowadays…
Not sure if they have the ability to extract power from lightning-producing clouds, but it’s a pretty powerful and convenient technology (or weapon) to be able to manually trigger a massive storm.
If you go 88 mph and tunnel in 1.21 gigawatts to the flux capacitor in the DeLorian, you can time travel.
Christopher A Richey says
Waxing philosophic here, but, the problem isn’t whether nature (solar, thermal, lightning, etc) provides enough energy to satisfy our consumption. Of course it does. The problem is that our entire energy grid is STILL based on 200 year old principles…that boil water…to produce steam…to turn turbines, because of economic factors only. For instance, the ‘modern’ steam plant is based on Combined Cycle tech. It’s a huge jet engine strapped to the floor. You feed it NG and it turns a turbine. It’s exhaust is used to produce steam to turn another turbine. We COULD have been doing this as early as, oh, I don’t know, the invention of the jet engine, but, COAL was the ‘invested’ fuel at the time and NG was ignored for another several decades because ‘they’ were already invested in coal and only sought their return on investment. Another few decades before NG was FORCED upon ‘them’ due to environmental factors and another decade for ‘them’ to figure out that Combined Cycle would allow ‘them’ to recover more of the NG investment…etc. The ‘bottom line’ is that we are still boiling water to produce watts. That’s it. Pure solar can never meet our energy demand. Why? Because, our energy demand requires generators to turn at 3400 to 7600 RPM’s to feed our power grids. THAT is ‘The Grid’ we built and rely on. Why? Because, all technology requires HUGE investment that must have a reasonable mechanism for ROI or it, simply, will not be invested in. Had we invested in harnessing lighting/solar/wind/plasma/etc., for the past 200 years, to turn turbines fast enough we would not be where we are now. NOT, because, alternatives are not sound, rather, because, alternatives require the same investments that ‘they’ are still collecting on from previous investments. Forget nuclear. There are ZERO options for safe disposal of waste. ZERO! Forget solar. The waste is almost as bad as nuclear and, also, has ZERO options for disposal, not considering the mining and production required. Boiling water is the only option Humans have ever conceived to produce electricity en masse.
James T Terry says
thunderclouds are 1000000000 volts crazy you know the atmospeare is real hot too blew me away how hot
steve hallman says
I like the fellows idea somewhere in the comments about harnessing the power as it is producing the strike. It has to build up the power for the strike to happen. If we could do this we could possibly prevent dangerous lighting.
You asked for an EE’s perspective:
While you state the 10BJ of energy in a bolt it actually varies quite a bit depending on cloud height (CAPE energy), temperature, humidity, etc. The actual strike is a series of pulsed ring waves. The frequency is around 100kHz. This has to do with the physics of the plasma filament and the pressures working on it.
So the peak V and A values you indicate above are not DC calculations like you describe. It is actually the area under the curve in the ring wave (which is only about 25% of the DC calculations).
Herman Cain says
You seem smater than me so I will assume your math is correct. Assume it can be done and the result is 56 houses/bolt of lightning for one day. Please continue to multiply by the number of lightning bolts in an average T-storm and the average number of T-storms in various US cities. You may also factor in the most strikes (Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela) and the cost to convert to Microwave for transport via satellite to the southernmost US connection to the power grid.
Aaron Noel says
These estimates are way off because the current and voltages used for an “average” lightning strike are completely wrong. Those are PEAK values, not steady-state. The lightning current waveform and voltage waveforms are both transient, not square. The current is only at that peak level for a microsecond or so (see SAE ARP 5412 and it’s references for actual plots), after which is drops down super fast. It’s on the order of 100’s of Amps for the remainder of the discharge which might last as long as one second.
moko kenya says
Hello stop thinking about harnessing thunderbolts but think about mimicking clouds the most charge based type.With the most number lighting strikes recorded on planet earth.WE should try create our own cumulonimbus clouds in a small contained environment.And see if doping it can help us,I Hear UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS has the equipment specialized expertise and the materials to recreate my though experiment with a couple of variables. One by starting in TRIPLE STATE of water using steam tables take it to a state that we can dope it .Till it is solid .Its better and easier than converting heavy water,
Steven Le says
Can you tell if we capture all the energy of a hurrican / typhoon ??? It can power the US in a year ….
Fact: Voltage range from 50 Mega Volts to 1 billion Volts
Fact: Current range from 5kA to 350kA
Fact: BUT the time is very short, in the order of milliseconds
So: Thus the energy output is fairly low and could, at most, light a regular fluorescent for not much more than a year. To harvest such energy would be basically impossible since the lost in transformation to make it in the range of a usable 600V AC would be far greater than the source could provide.
i think it sounds shocking
The lightning is not 120kv (120.000V ) thats the typical range of a human high voltage grid….
The natural lightining is clocked at millions of volts, Around 100-300 million volts…
You can try to store the electricity in a enclosed chamber
Daniel Small says
i think there is a way you can collect it and use it at the same time but i am stil think about it but i this i have a idea about it if you wil like to know just ask
Would it be difficult to recreate the natural process of creating lightning in a lab?
If you live in Central California in 2020, you might know that lightning started 350 fires on August 13. Is there a way the lightning could just be attracted away from these dangerous strikes – something like a lightning beacon? I wouldn’t wish to harness the power, just divert it from doing damage.
Tony Herring says
I think everybody is forgetting about the size of the insulators you would need to separate the plus and minus it be tremendous 100 million volts
Gourav mandal says
is it possible to store lightning energy in a large capacitor??
Larry Hooks says
10,000,000 (watts, volts, or anything) is 10 mega__. 10,000,000,000__is 10 giga__. 10,000,000,000,000__ is 10 tera__.
National Geographic says a bolt of lightning can be 1 Billion volts. Where did you get 40 to 120 kV?
is it possible to store lightning energy in a large capacitor??
Paul Dvorak says
I’m not sure. You might fly a kite in an electrical storm with a wire attached to the capacitor and the other lead to ground. It’s just a concept.
John Fowler says
Hey Paul or anyone else out there – I need help. I was told that a 1.5 Vdc AA battery contains 15 joules of energy and can produce 300 volts after charging a disposable camera flash capacitor. Is it wrong that I divided the 300 volts by 15 joules and came up with the number 20, then was able to assume that if I had a heart defibrillator, containing 500 joules of energy could produce 10,000 volts? i.e.20 X 500 = 10,000 v. Am I using funny math?
Also, if a thermoelectric generator was placed into a stationary orbit in space to absorb 2,000 degrees F and use a capacitor to amplify and store that energy, what would the voltage capacity be? Then, if that voltage was stored into a capacitor to multiply the voltage, what would it be?
Jay bowles says
I have experimented with high voltage my entire life. You have a great article here, but a bolt of lightning only 40kv to 120kv? That is not accurate at all. On my kitchen table is a device that produces 300kv and the Sparks are only 8 inches long….to put things in perspective. Lightning is known, as a standard, to have a voltage potential of 100million volts. Air’s dielectric breakdown limit is 3.0 million volts per meter. This is a well studied number. The electric field under a storm allows the bolt to penetrate through more air than normal. so, your calculations are slightly underpowered. Replace 120kv with 100million volts.
There is elecromagnetic energy all around us. Try placing a grid of copper wires above ground with one end grounded and the other end to a transformer.. You will get volts…
But i didn’t get charles klasky explanation of the bolt storage method he said can anyone give more oil to the hair and if by any chance i need to discuss with you about the bolt stuff can i get your email pls
charles klasky says
One possible way to store the energy from a bolt of lightning might be to use electromagnetism and gravity, one of the oldest kinds of “battery” the thing that powers your old grandfather clock. If the tower that attracted the lightning (and was well insulated from the ground) had a coil that directed that charge to ground, and if it had a heavy solid magnet in the middle of that coil, then the electricity would raise that magnet as the charge went down the down the wire. The same king of brake as you find in a standard elevator would prevent that weight from falling striaght back down again. That potential energy would be stored energy as long as the great bolt can be efffectively shunted to prevent from daining that energy off with it..
Using the top of the tower as a mast for high flying (Ben Franklin) kites could get that conductor much higher into the storm clouds. Mulitiple directionalble kites could spread the collection area out both vertically and horizontally. That way it could collect more positive ions from the storm cloud.
This way the charge could be collected gradually. The point is not to force a violent discharge but to collect the energy from the system befoere it happens.
Of course the number of negative ions in the ground will always be one limiting factor but radio towers already spread out huge wheels of grounding wires to dissipate lightning energy- to prevent damage to the radio equipment, cell phone electronics and more. This is a well understood and a well developed technology. If nothing else I believe this possible technology should be studied to provide -if nothing more – emergency power for areas afflicted by storms. You could even use that energy to pump water.
There are tens of thousands of towers already erected (from existing high voltage power towers to cell phone towers) that could be potentially retofiited with a system that collects the energy of lightning. I don’t know if this idea is feasible or even possible. I also have no idea how such an extraction of this energy might affect the storms that produce them – possitively or negetively. At any rate if we actually started to develope this technology it would most likely be at a slow enough pace for us to to be able ask and answer those questions long before they become crises events. Please let’s move forward.
if we can find a capacitor to save the lightning power its enough to use allover the world without powercut for next 5 years…………
James Hackett says
Although a single strike of lightning does last a mili-second many lightning discharges have multiple discharges called dart leaders.
Methinks that strapping an alternator around the equator is a better idea and we will skip the capacitors
> If 10,000,000 watts is Ten Mega-watts, does that make 10,000,000,000 watts Ten “Biga-watts”?
No, that’s 10 TERROR watts.
10,000,000,000,000 is 10 DOOM watts, by the way 😉
Just a small technical point – Wh (or W-sec) is a unit of energy, not power.
Keith brought up a really good point. He’s actually right about lighting only lasting a milli second. That would actually bring ur calculation to somethin like 2.7 x 10^4 or something. Either way, i think a lighting bolt only has enough energy to power on 1 single lighting bulb, for 3 or 4 months. The amperage just isnt there….
Paul Dvorak says
Thanks to all of you for the comments. As you all recognize, this is just a paper experiment to get a handle on the power in a lightning bolt. Although lightning bolt is dangerous, we can conclude, it does not carry much energy. In my calculations, I assumed 100% capture efficiency. That is just not practical. Nonetheless, it was fun to “run the numbers.” –Paul Dvorak
Keith Kropf says
Paul – your calculation for energy used by a house is very good. Most homes in the USA use around 1,000kWh to 2,000kWh per month – that is, about 33 to 66 kWh per day (1kWh = 1,000 Watt-hours). The average cost in the USA for a residential service is around $0.10 per kWh, so the average bill is around $100-$200 per month for energy. Most if not all utilities also have an additional fixed charge (pays for the poles, wires, transformers, breakers, power plants, employee wages, etc.) that is also on the monthly bill.
Keith Kropf says
I didn’t go thru your math, but I did note that you made the assumption that the lightning bolt last for 1 second. Actually, the electrical charge is transferred in a few milliseconds (thousandths of seconds). If you search Wikipedia for “Harvesting Lightning Energy” there is a discussion there that is fairly accurate, I think. A quote from that Wikipedia article: “According to Martin A. Uman, co-director of the Lightning Research Laboratory at the University of Florida and a leading authority on lightning, a single lightning strike, while fast and bright, contains very little energy, and dozens of lightning towers like those used in the system tested by AEHI would be needed to operate five 100-watt light bulbs for the course of a year.” footnote 6 = ^ Uman Receives 2001 Fleming Medal. http://www.agu.org.
I’m not saying that it can’t be done, or it can’t be done efficiently, but with any current technology, it is not practical. I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying to perfect this technology. What can’t be done is to ignore any laws of physics, which is commonly done by “the average guy” tinkering in his garage/shop, who doesn’t fully understand all the engineering, but tries to design something anyway. Those things usually either work only once, or don’t ever quite work. Close doesn’t always count, you know.
L. Deak says
40 kV to 120 kV?
Yes, 40,000 to 120,000 V and I would not be surprised if it were more. I picked 100,000V to work with because it’s a round number.
Thanks a lot for the calculation.
Although it’s a good idea to use the energy of lightning bolts, but the major problem is the harvesting method.
In my opinion, we have still a long way to achieve the technology. Although it is not impossible!
You are absolutely right in that capturing a bolt or even part of it requires a mystifying method. But I have to think there are more than a few people who have considered the problem. If it were easy, it would have been done by now.
If 10,000,000 watts is Ten Mega-watts, does that make 10,000,000,000 watts Ten “Biga-watts”?
Do you always think big? To you question, yes, 10 Berry Biga-watts.