What If The Sahara Desert Was Covered With Solar Panels?

Mason Cole, MA Politics and Contemporary History student and Sustainability Champion Assistant (SCA) for the King’s Energy Team, contributes to this guest blog.

We alluded to the possibility of covering the Sahara Desert with solar panels in last week’s blog post. While some of you may have had this concept before, others may have been enthralled by it for the past week, wondering why it hasn’t been implemented. Apart from the fact that we don’t require that much energy, as we stated last week, there are a number of additional reasons why we won’t go through with it. Continue reading to discover out.

The Sahara Desert is one of the most sun-exposed areas on the planet. So, if we could gather all of that energy, we could power the entire world. In truth, we’d be harvesting far more energy than we’d ever use. According to Forbes, solar panels covering 335km2 would be enough to power the entire world but that would only cover 1.2 percent of the Sahara Desert.

This could have a number of ramifications outside of electricity generating. The pale color of Saharan sand, for starters, assists to reflect the sun’s light and heat back into the atmosphere. We would ensure that more sunlight is absorbed by covering this, causing a rise in ground temperature. Warmer air moves to higher altitudes, condensing as clouds, which subsequently fall as rain, altering the desert as we know it.

The world is run on a succession of well-balanced systems, and this might throw everything off. For example, the Amazon Rainforest relies on mineral-rich sands blown in from the Sahara for nutrition. Without these, the Amazon will be deprived of sufficient nutrients to exist, hastening its demise. Furthermore, the desert’s heightened heat isn’t going to stop there. It will be carried throughout the planet by weather systems, resulting in less rain in the Amazon and more unstable weather in places like North America and Asia.

We don’t need to cover the Sahara with solar panels entirely. Even 20%, which is the quantity required to initiate these effects, is insufficient. Instead, a series of smaller solar farms covering 1.2 percent of the earth’s surface should be sufficient to provide enough electricity without causing as severe environmental damage.

Expecting political cohesiveness and economic investment to make such a vision a reality quickly is certainly unrealistic. However, if projects like Morocco’s Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex continue to produce positive results, there is no reason why a series of independent projects may not be established over a longer time period to meet our energy needs.

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Is it possible to install solar panels in the Sahara Desert?

The world’s most desolate deserts may be the best areas on the planet for capturing solar electricity, our most abundant and pure source of energy.

Deserts are large, flat, and rich in silicon, which is used to make semiconductors, which are used to make solar cells. They also never lack sunlight. In fact, all ten of the world’s largest solar facilities are located in deserts or dry regions.

Researchers believe that the world’s largest desert, the Sahara, could be converted into a massive solar farm capable of meeting four times the world’s current energy consumption. Plans for projects in Tunisia and Morocco that would provide electricity to millions of European households have been drawn up.

While solar panels absorb the majority of the sunlight that strikes them, only about 15% of that energy is converted to electricity; the rest is released into the atmosphere as heat. Because the panels are usually much darker than the ground they cover, a large expanse of solar cells will absorb a lot of extra energy and radiate it as heat, causing climate change.

In a thinly inhabited and arid desert, these consequences might not matter if they were merely local. However, the infrastructure required to make a dent in the world’s fossil energy needs would be massive, spanning thousands of square kilometers. The flow of air in the atmosphere will redistribute heat re-emitted from an area of this size, having regional and even global climate consequences.

Massive solar farm installation could create more humid conditions and also a greener Sahara Desert

A climate model was used to simulate the impacts of reduced albedo on the land surface of deserts caused by the installation of huge solar farms in a 2018 study. The albedo of a surface is a measurement of how efficiently it reflects sunlight. Sand, for example, has a higher albedo than a solar panel because it is considerably more reflecting.

The model found that when the solar farm’s size exceeds 20% of the Sahara’s entire area, a feedback loop is triggered. The heat emitted by the darker solar panels (as opposed to the highly reflecting desert soil) creates a significant temperature difference between the land and the surrounding oceans, which causes surface air pressure to drop and moist air to rise and condense into raindrops. Plants thrive as a result of increased monsoon rains, and the desert reflects less of the sun’s energy since flora absorbs light better than sand and soil. More water evaporates as more plants grow, resulting in a more humid atmosphere that encourages vegetation to spread.

This scenario may seem far-fetched, but research suggests that a similar feedback loop maintained most of the Sahara green during the African Humid Period, which lasted only 5,000 years.

As a result, a massive solar farm might provide enough electricity to meet global demand while also transforming one of the world’s most hostile settings into a livable oasis.

We used a sophisticated Earth system model to investigate how Saharan solar farms interact with the climate in a recent study. The intricate feedbacks between the interacting spheres of the world’s climate the atmosphere, the ocean, and the land and its ecosystems are taken into consideration in our model. It demonstrated that unforeseen consequences in far-flung sections of the land and sea could outweigh any regional benefits gained over the Sahara.

The consequences of a warmer, greener Sahara would be felt around the world, from drought in the Amazon to sea loss in the Arctic

According to our study, covering 20% of the Sahara with solar farms elevates local temperatures in the desert by 1.5C. The temperature rises by 2.5C when 50% of the area is covered. Because of atmospheric and ocean movement, this warming will gradually spread throughout the globe, boosting the global average temperature by 0.16C for 20% coverage and 0.39C for 50% coverage.

However, the global temperature shift will not be uniform; the polar areas will warm faster than the tropics, leading to an increase in Arctic sea ice loss. Melting sea ice exposes dark water, which absorbs considerably more solar radiation, potentially speeding up warming.

This vast new heat source in the Sahara disrupts global air and ocean circulation, impacting worldwide precipitation patterns. In our simulations, the narrow band of high rainfall in the tropics, which accounts for more than 30% of global precipitation and supports the Amazon and Congo Basin rainforests, shifts northward.

Droughts occur in the Amazon basin as a result of less moisture arriving from the ocean. The Amazon loses almost the same amount of rain that falls over the Sahara owing to the surface-darkening effects of solar panels. Tropical cyclones are expected to impact the shores of North America and East Asia more frequently, according to the model.

Some critical processes, such as dust blown from vast deserts, are still absent from our model. The Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean rely on nutrient-rich Saharan dust delivered by the wind.

As a result, a greener Sahara might have a far greater global impact than our calculations predicted.

We’re merely scratching the surface of the potential ramifications of vast solar farms being built in the world’s deserts. While solutions like this may aid society’s transition away from fossil fuels, Earth system studies like ours highlight the need of taking into account the many coupled responses of the atmosphere, oceans, and land surface when weighing the advantages and hazards.

The Conversation has given permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license.

Learn about solar energy’s biggest challenge and how scientists are attempting to overcome it in this TED-Ed lesson:

To power the entire Sahara, how many solar panels would be required?

It all depends, as it always does. It would take 51.4 billion 350W solar panels, covering an area of 115,625 square miles, to provide enough solar to power the entire world.

Is it true that solar panels contribute to global warming?

Solar panels help to combat global warming by generating power instead of using greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. They also provide sun protection for Earth. This additional shade should also help to combat climate changeafter all, less solar radiation equals a colder Earth, right? Scientists report in today’s issue of Nature Climate Change that it’s not quite that straightforward. Solar panels, it turns out, can actually make some places hotter. The researchers created a fantasy world in which deserts and cities are fully covered in solar panels. (Because weather is affected by so many variables, the team had to simulate an extreme scenario to confirm the changes they saw were caused by solar panels.) The simulation revealed that the additional shade cools the covered area first, but that the lower temperature alters local weather patterns. India and eastern Australia, for example, get warmer after 50 years because of less rainfall, while the northwestern United States gets warmer due to changes in wind patterns. However, the advantages of solar panels continue to exceed the disadvantages. Large-scale solar panel coverage that is realistic could result in less than half a degree of local warming, significantly less than the several degrees of global warming forecast over the next century if we continue to burn fossil fuels. The analysis, however, reveals that big solar panel installations aren’t the only fossil fuel alternative, according to the authors.

What lies beneath the sands of the Sahara?

Scientists have discovered evidence of a prehistoric megalake beneath the dunes of the Sahara Desert. When the Nile River surged through a low channel in Wadi Tushka 250,000 years ago, it flooded the eastern Sahara, creating a lake that covered more than 42,000 square miles at its peak.

Is it possible to turn the Sahara into a lush oasis?

However, there is geologic evidence from ocean sediments that these orbitally-paced Green Sahara occurrences occurred as far back as the Miocene epoch (23 million to 5 million years ago), even during periods when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were similar to, if not higher, than they are today. As a result, a future Green Sahara occurrence remains a distinct possibility. According to a March assessment published in the journal One Earth, rising greenhouse gases may have their own greening influence on the Sahara, though not to the same extent as orbital-forced changes. However, because to the limits of climate models, this hypothesis is far from clear.

Meanwhile, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Science, there is another option to change sections of the Sahara into a green landscape: large solar and wind farms could increase rainfall in the Sahara and its southern neighbor, the semiarid Sahel.

What is the area of the Sahara desert divided by 1.2?

As the globe works to reduce its carbon footprint and discover new sources of energy that can be converted into power as effectively and cleanly as possible, it appears that we may have undervalued the most valuable resource we have: the sun. Solar is by far the largest and most dependable source of energy available anywhere on the planet, yet we aren’t taking advantage of it to its full potential. Why? Well…

As you can see in the figure above, the sun can offer us with more energy than we require each year, to the tune of 860,000 times what we require. That means we’re squandering an opportunity to profit from this renewable energy source.

Solar broke the record for weekly output in the United Kingdom for the first time (between the 21st and the 28th of June 2018), producing 533 gigawatt hours of power, more than Gas, Nuclear, Wind, and the rest combined, supplying 27.8% of total energy supplies at one point. During same seven-day period, it also generated 75GWh on five of the seven days, a new record, and solar production exceeded 8GW for eight days in a row, a first.

The next point to address is where would we install the solar panels if we were to capitalize on this right now? We obviously need somewhere sunny, and the Sahara Desert is one of the greatest sites for this, not only because of the amount of sun it receives, but also because there is little to no life in this area, thus the risk of damaging natural habitats is negligible, if not non-existent.

According to Mehran Moalem, PhD, a professor at UC Berkeley and an expert in nuclear materials and the nuclear fuel cycle,

“Even with moderate efficiency possible today, covering an area of the Earth 335 kilometers by 335 kilometers with solar panels will supply more than 17,4 TW power.” This is a 43,000-square-mile area. The 3.6 million square mile Great Saharan Desert in Africa is ideal for solar electricity (more than twelve hours per day). That indicates that 1.2 percent of the Sahara Desert can provide enough solar energy to meet the entire world’s energy needs.”

In the not-too-distant future, energy consumption is expected to climb to 715 exajoules by 2030.

The Land Art Generator Initiative has created this map, in which the locations were picked based on the required area (496,805 square kilometers) in the year 2030. The map is also based on the assumption that collection devices will operate at 20% efficiency and that natural solar input of 1000 watts per square metre will strike the surface of the panels for 2000 hours per year, with panels distributed around the world to localize as much as possible and receive 24/7 sunlight.

Professor Moalem also estimates that the project will cost roughly $5 trillion.

To put this in perspective, that’s the same amount of money spent on the military and weapons by the world over three years ($1.7 trillion per year/$5.1 trillion), the amount spent by the US on Middle East and Asian wars since 2001 ($5.6 trillion), and the amount spent on fast food by Americans over 13 years ($5.08 trillion).

However, as the cost of solar power production falls, the price may come down. According to a Business Insider analysis, producing one megawatt-hour of solar electricity currently costs only $50, down 86 percent since 2009, but coal costs $102.

Who is the owner of the Sahara Desert?

Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan, and Tunisia are all part of the Sahara. It covers 9 million square kilometers (3,500,000 square miles), or 31% of Africa’s land area. The Sahara would cover 11 million square kilometers if all places with a mean annual precipitation of less than 250 mm were included (4,200,000 sq mi). It is one of the African huge physiographic division’s three separate physiographic provinces. The Sahara is so vast and brilliant that it might theoretically be spotted as a surface feature of Earth from distant stars with near-current technology.

The Sahara is mostly made up of rocky hamada (stone plateaus); ergs (sand seas – huge areas covered in sand dunes) make up a small part of the landscape, yet several of the sand dunes reach heights of over 180 meters (590 feet). Sand dunes, dune fields, sand seas, stone plateaus, gravel plains (reg), dry valleys (wadi), dry lakes (oued), and salt flats are all formed by wind or unusual rainfall (shatt or chott). The Richat Structure in Mauritania is an unusual landform.

The Ar Mountains, Ahaggar Mountains, Saharan Atlas, Tibesti Mountains, Adrar des Iforas, and the Red Sea Hills are among the many severely divided, volcanic mountains that rise from the desert. Emi Koussi, a shield volcano in northern Chad’s Tibesti range, is the highest point in the Sahara.

The central Sahara is arid and sparsely vegetated region. The highlands, as well as the northern and southern portions of the desert, contain sparse grassland and desert shrub, with trees and larger plants in wadis, where precipitation concentrates. Many subgroups of the great desert exist in the central, hyperarid region: Tanezrouft, Tnr, Libyan Desert, Eastern Desert, Nubian Desert, and others. For years, these desert regions often go without rain.

The Sahara surrounds the Mediterranean Sea to the north in Egypt and parts of Libya, but it borders the Mediterranean forest, woodland, and scrub eco-regions of northern Africa in Cyrenaica and the Maghreb, all of which have a Mediterranean climate characterized by scorching summers and mild, rainy winters. The northern limit of the Sahara corresponds to the northern limit of date palm cultivation and the southern limit of the range of esparto, a grass typical of the Mediterranean climate portion of the Maghreb and Iberia, according to botanical criteria developed by Frank White and geographer Robert Capot-Rey. The northern boundary also corresponds to the annual precipitation isohyet of 100 mm (3.9 in).

Is it possible to power the entire world with solar energy?

It’s a boom period for renewable energy as countries race to reduce their reliance on the fossil fuels that cause climate change. Now, an international team of academics has calculated that if solar panels were installed on every available rooftop, enough electricity could be generated to power the entire world.

How much would solar panels cost to cover the Sahara desert?

This concept, known as agrophotovoltaics, has been promoted in the solar industry as a way to increase land usage efficiency by 60%. The Sahara Forest Project, pictured above, would span 10 hectares in Tunisia for $30 million and use solar energy to assist produce the crops.

Al-Habaibeh thinks that a larger project, similar to the one seen above, may use concentrated solar electricity. This would reflect sunlight back into a container, heating it and powering a steam turbine while also storing energy in the form of molten salt. In the United Arab Emirates, a similar idea has been proposed, which would circumvent the difficulties of installing photovoltaic panels in extreme heat.

However, a larger project that covers more territory has its own set of issues. To begin with, the Sahara desert is administered by several countries and is home to a large population. In the same story in The Conversation, Olofo1mi Tw2, a professor at Georgetown University, claimed it could amount to “climate colonialism.”

Is it possible for the entire globe to go solar?

To power the entire world, how many solar panels would be required? To power the entire world, 51.4 billion 350W solar panels would be required! In other words, this is the equivalent of a 115,625-square-mile solar power plant.