Can We Cover The Sahara Desert With Solar Panels?

The desert has abundant supply of sunlight. This makes it an ideal place to build a solar power plant. But, these plants can have negative impact on the environment.

The blaring signs of climate change have forced the world to look into green energy. A source of energy that is not driven by fossil fuel and has negligible carbon emission.

Let’s brainstorm some of the available options, shall we?

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Nuclear energy can be the answer as it has zero carbon emissions. But not all countries can afford nuclear plants as they require tons of resources and has high risks of nuclear accidents.

So what about wind turbines? It is a sustainable and clean fuel source. But the turbines can be noisy and is known to be bird killer. Also, the wind isn’t a reliable source as it doesn’t always blow.

Solar plants also have a similar problem. The sun doesn’t always shine bright in the sky and there are regions where sunlight is lambent or the sky is mostly cloudy. Although… there is the solution for that- Deserts! They are largely inhabited lands with plentiful sunlight.

So why aren’t we covering deserts like the Sahara with solar panels?

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If the question keeps you awake at night, it’s a good thing you’re here.



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Perks of Solar Plant in Sahara

According to German physicist Gehrard Knies, in just six hours, deserts around the world receives more solar energy (173000 terawatts) than humans consume in a year. (Source)

The Sahara Desert in Africa is 9.2 million square kilometers big, occupying 8% of the earthly land. If 1.2% of the desert –around 110,000 square kilometers- is covered with solar panels, it will be sufficient to satisfy the entire world’s energy needs.

In addition to this, the desert has extremely low rainfall, slim to none cloud cover, wildlife and negligible human population. These attributes make the desert practically useless to any human interest. One man’s trash is can be another man’s treasure and in this case, the world’s treasure. This makes Sahara desert our best bet for a clean and sustainable source of energy. And if that’s the case, is there anyone working on it?

Vector map of the Sahara desert and Sahel zone

The Sahara desert (Photo Credit : Rainer Lesniewski/Shutterstock)

Yes, there was. In 2009, the Desertec Foundation launched an initiative to power Europe with solar energy generated in deserts. But, soon after its establishment, the initiative started to fail. It was due to problems related to its feasibility, transportation and also because the project was too expensive. (Source)

Solar panels could turn the desert green

Large-scale photovoltaic (PV) panels covering the Sahara desert might be the solution for our electrical requirements. At the same time, it can cause more trouble for the environment.

An EC-Earth solar farm simulation study reveals the effect of the lower albedo of the desert on the local ecosystem. Albedo is the measure of the portion of solar energy reflected by the ground. It is measured on a scale of 0 (indicates a highly absorptive surface) to 1 (indicates a reflective surface).

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Solar farm in a desert (Photo Credit : twenty20)

The study suggests that when the solar panels take up more than 20% of the total area of Sahara, it can trigger a vicious cycle of temperature rise. Forming a blanket of solar panels on the desert changes the albedo as the photovoltaic cells absorb the solar radiation to generate energy. Thus, the PV solar panel has lower albedo as compared to the desert sand which reflects sunlight.

However, solar panels do not entirely convert the incident sunlight into electricity. Rather, a portion of the solar energy converts into heat which can alter the local temperature. Hot solar panels trigger high surface air temperature and flow of convection currents, thereby causing precipitation. An increase in rainfall thereby promotes vegetation growth which further reduces the albedo as plants absorb sunlight better than sand.

Droughts, Cyclones and Melting Sea ice

As if turning the hot sandy ground of Sahara into a rainy, green land wasn’t enough, solar panels could wreak havoc in other parts of the world as well.

The simulation indicates an increase of ~1.5°C in the local surface air temperature in scenarios where 20% of the land is covered with solar panels. Likewise, an increase of ~2.5°C with 50% land coverage. Eventually, both the scenarios can increase the global temperatures by the atmosphere and ocean currents. Greater signs of warming will be seen in the Arctic region in the second scenario. The warming of the polar region would cause a rise in sea levels due to the melting of sea ice.

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melting sea-ice (Image Credit: Pixabay)

The redistribution of rainfall in the Sahara and nearby regions would reduce precipitation in the Amazon region by 10-30%. It is roughly the same amount of extra rainfall the Sahara would receive due to the lower albedo caused by PV solar panels. The reduction in moisture and precipitation would lead to drought-like conditions in the Amazon.

To put the final nail in the coffin, solar farms in the desert would promote the development of tropical cyclones over North American and the East Asian coasts.

Storage and Transportation Issues

Even if we overcome all the catastrophic effects of desert solar farms, we would have to figure out the logistics to store and transport all this energy. We would require massive batteries to store the energy generated during the day to continue the power supply even during the night. Each panel will need an individual small battery for an uninterrupted power output throughout the day. This would nearly double the overall cost of the solar plant.

What about transportation? How would we supply the whole wide world with a solar plant in the middle of a desert? Currently, Africa is running behind on the development of reliable electrical grids. Long-distance transportation of energy through power lines also comes with some percentage of power loss (up to 22.8%).

Additionally, the African region is politically unstable. It makes a large investment (such as a solar farm) in the area risky.

Conclusion

Do we really need to take over acres of desert land and disturb its ecosystem to produce solar power? However exemplary the idea of harvesting large amounts of energy from desert solar plants might be, it’s still too complex to turn into reality. But, we have the technology to empower our towns and cities to generate their solar energy.

That being said, if this concept does manifest into reality, it would be a great achievement for the world. It would allow us to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel-based power plants.

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About the Author

Ketaki Bapat is a student of B.Tech (Cosmetic Technolgy) at Kamla Nehru Mahavidyalaya, Nagpur. Science has always intrigued her with her special interest being life sciences, biochemistry and psychology. During her free time, she enjoys watching sitcoms, reading mythological and historical books and playing with her mischievous pet – Shih Tzu.

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