But they also come with a couple of issues: for one, solar farms are massive, and they have to be set up somewhere that gets a lot of sunlight.
Now, if only we had a large mass of unused land that gets guaranteed sunlight everyday… Could we cover an entire desert in solar panels? Would that be enough to power the entire world? What kind of problems could we run into?
In just six hours, the world’s deserts receive more solar energy than the entire human race consumes in a year. If we covered just 1.2 percent of the Sahara desert in solar panels, we could harness enough of this power to meet the energy needs of the entire world.
It wouldn’t be easy, though. How would we overcome the geopolitical and financial obstacles involved? And how could this project thoroughly change the desert’s climate?
Usually, a solar farm is built to prevent changes to the environment, but if we built one in the Sahara, it might cause some changes of its own.
If we lined the desert floor with giant solar panels, it would double the rainfall in the region and increase vegetation cover by about 20 percent. Sound a little unbelievable?
Saharan sand is unusually light in color, which means that it tends to reflect a lot of light and heat back up into the air. If we covered the sand in dark solar panels, it would mean that more sun would be absorbed, and the ground temperature would increase.
Warmer air rises to areas in the atmosphere where it’s cooler, and moisture there condenses and falls as rain. Before you knew it, one of the most extreme climates on Earth would undergo a significant makeover.
So if these solar panels would not only provide sustainable energy solutions, but also add much-needed greenery to our largest desert, then what are we waiting for? Shouldn’t we be out there building these things already?
Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. For one thing, it’s great to produce enough energy to power the world, but then you have to worry about how you’re going to get it to everyone.
The most likely place this energy would travel to first is to Europe. Exporting sustainable energy would do great things for a lot of African economies, but would they have the means to do it?
Currently, electrical grids in Africa aren’t very reliable, and they’d need power lines of around 800 – 3,000 km (500 to 2,000 miles) to get where they needed to go. Transporting power over long distances leads to power loss of up to 10%, which means that an already expensive project would get even more pricey.
And where would all the money come from? Africa is home to quite a few unstable governments, the kind that raise some pretty big red flags with investors of multi-billion dollar projects like this one.
On top of that, this would be a long-term project, so there’d be a lot of moving parts. Several countries would have to be involved, and any one of them might see a changing political landscape over the years that could disrupt, or put an end to the whole thing.
As great as this project could be, it would probably be better to attempt it on a small scale first. Maybe solar panels could be used to power some small African villages, and help to spread access to electricity, but that’s a topic for another What-If.
- What Would Happen if the Sahara Was Covered in Solar and Wind Farms. Digital Trends (2018). Retrieved 23 October 2018
- Li, Y., Kalnay, E., Motesharrei, S., Rivas, J., Kucharski, F., Kirk-Davidoff, D., Bach, E. and Zeng, N. Li, Y., Kalnay, E., Motesharrei, S., Rivas, J., Kucharski, F., & Kirk-Davidoff, D. et al. (2018). Climate model shows large-scale wind and solar farms in the Sahara increase rain and vegetation. Science, 361(6406), 1019-1022. doi:10.1126/science.aar5629
- Should we solar panel the Sahara? (2018). BBC News. Retrieved 23 October 2018
- Hornigold, T. (2017). The Tantalizing Dream of Blanketing the Sahara in Solar Panels. Singularity Hub. Retrieved 23 October 2018
- We Could Power The Entire World By Harnessing Solar Energy From 1% Of The Sahara (2018). Forbes. Retrieved 23 October 2018
- How Solar Panels in the Sahara Could Make It Rain More (2018). Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 23 October 2018
- Adding clean energy to the Sahara could make it rain (and not just figuratively). Popular Science (2018). Retrieved 14 October 2018