Should The Sahara Desert Be Turned Into A Huge Solar Farm?

Should The Sahara Desert Be Turned Into A Huge Solar Farm? Naeblys / shutterstock

Whenever I visit the Sahara I am struck by how sunny and hot it is and how clear the sky can be. Aside from a few oases there is little vegetation, and most of the world’s largest desert is covered with rocks, sand and sand dunes. The Saharan sun is powerful enough to provide Earth with significant solar energy.

The statistics are mind-boggling. If the desert were a country, it would be fifth biggest in the world – it’s larger than Brazil and slightly smaller than China and the US. Each square metre receives, on average, between 2,000 and 3,000 kilowatt hours of solar energy per year, according to NASA estimates. Given the Sahara covers about 9m km², that means the total energy available – that is, if every inch of the desert soaked up every drop of the sun’s energy – is more than 22 billion gigawatt hours (GWh) a year.

This is again a big number that requires some context: it means that a hypothetical solar farm that covered the entire desert would produce 2,000 times more energy than even the largest power stations in the world, which generate barely 100,000 GWh a year. In fact, its output would be equivalent to more than 36 billion barrels of oil per day – that’s around five barrels per person per day. In this scenario, the Sahara could potentially produce more than seven times the electricity requirements of Europe, with almost no carbon emissions.

Global horizontal irradiation, a measure of how much solar power received per year. Global Solar Atlas / World Bank

What’s more, the Sahara also has the advantage of being very close to Europe. The shortest distance between North Africa and Europe is just 15km at the Strait of Gibraltar. But even much further distances, across the main width of the Mediterranean, are perfectly practical – after all, the world’s longest underwater power cable runs for nearly 600km between Norway and the Netherlands.

Over the past decade or so, scientists (including me and my colleagues) have looked at how desert solar could meet increasing local energy demand and eventually power Europe too – and how this might work in practice. And these academic insights have been translated in serious plans. The highest profile attempt was Desertec, a project announced in 2009 that quickly acquired lots of funding from various banks and energy firms before largely collapsing when most investors pulled out five years later, citing high costs. Such projects are held back by a variety of political, commercial and social factors, including a lack of rapid development in the region.

The planet Tatooine from the Star Wars movies was filmed in southern Tunisia. Amin Al-Habaibeh, Author provided

More recent proposals include the TuNur project in Tunisia, which aims to power more than 2m European homes, or the Noor Complex Solar Power Plant in Morocco which also aims to export energy to Europe.

Two technologies

There are two practical technologies at the moment to generate solar electricity within this context: concentrated solar power (CSP) and regular photovoltaic solar panels. Each has its pros and cons.

Concentrated solar power uses lenses or mirrors to focus the sun’s energy in one spot, which becomes incredibly hot. This heat then generates electricity through conventional steam turbines. Some systems use molten salt to store energy, allowing electricity to also be produced at night.

A concentrated solar plant near Seville, Spain. The mirrors focus the sun’s energy on the tower in the centre. Novikov Aleksey / shutterstock

CSP seems to be more suitable to the Sahara due to the direct sun, lack of clouds and high temperatures which makes it more efficient. However the lenses and mirrors could be covered by sand storms, while the turbine and steam heating systems remain complex technologies. But the most important drawback of the technology is its use of scarce water resources.

Photovoltaic solar panels instead convert the sun’s energy to electricity directly using semiconductors. It is the most common type of solar power as it can be either connected to the grid or distributed for small-scale use on individual buildings. Also, it provides reasonable output in cloudy weather.

But one of the drawbacks is that when the panels get too hot their efficiency drops. This isn’t ideal in a part of the world where summer temperatures can easily exceed 45℃ in the shade, and given that demand for energy for air conditioning is strongest during the hottest parts of the day. Another problem is that sand storms could cover the panels, further reducing their efficiency.

Both technologies might need some amount of water to clean the mirrors and panels depending on the weather, which also makes water an important factor to consider. Most researchers suggest integrating the two main technologies to develop a hybrid system.

Just a small portion of the Sahara could produce as much energy as the entire continent of Africa does at present. As solar technology improves, things will only get cheaper and more efficient. The Sahara may be inhospitable for most plants and animals, but it could bring sustainable energy to life across North Africa – and beyond.

About The Author

Amin Al-Habaibeh, Professor of Intelligent Engineering Systems, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

InnerSelf Market

Amazon

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate impasse
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate Impasse
by InnerSelf Staff
Everyone has energy stories, whether they’re about a relative working on an oil rig, a parent teaching a child to turn…
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
by Gregg Howe and Nathan Havko
For millennia, insects and the plants they feed on have been engaged in a co-evolutionary battle: to eat or not be…
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
by Swapnesh Masrani
Ambitious targets have been set by the UK and Scottish governments to become net-zero carbon economies by 2050 and 2045…
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
by Theresa Crimmins
Across much of the United States, a warming climate has advanced the arrival of spring. This year is no exception.
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
The Last Ice Age Tells Us Why We Need To Care About A 2℃ Change In Temperature
by Alan N Williams, et al
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that without a substantial decrease…
A Georgia Town Gets Half Of Its Electricity From President Jimmy Carter's Solar Farm
A Georgia Town Gets Half Of Its Electricity From President Jimmy Carter's Solar Farm
by Johnna Crider
Plains, Georgia, is a small town that is just south of Columbus, Macon, and Atlanta and north of Albany. It is the…
Majority of US Adults Believe Climate Change Is Most Important Issue Today
by American Psychological Association
As the effects of climate change become more evident, more than half of U.S. adults (56%) say climate change is the…
How These Three Financial Firms Could Change The Direction Of The Climate Crisis
How These Three Financial Firms Could Change The Direction Of The Climate Crisis
by Mangulina Jan Fichtner, et al
A silent revolution is happening in investing. It is a paradigm shift that will have a profound impact on corporations,…

LATEST ARTICLES

Heatwaves Too Hot And Wet For Human Life Are Here
Heatwaves Too Hot And Wet For Human Life Are Here Now
by Tim Radford
Lethal heatwaves carrying air turned too hot and wet to survive are a threat which has arrived, thanks to climate…
How Dangerous Is Low-level Radiation To Children?
How Dangerous Is Low-level Radiation To Children?
by Paul Brown
A rethink on the risks of low-level radiation would imperil the nuclear industry’s future − perhaps why there’s never…
What We Do Now Could Change Earth's Trajectory
What We Do Now Could Change Earth's Trajectory
by Pep Canadell, et al
The numbers of people cycling and walking in public spaces during COVID-19 has skyrocketed.
Marine Heatwaves Spell Trouble For Tropical Reef Fish — Even Before Corals Die
Marine Heatwaves Spell Trouble For Tropical Reef Fish — Even Before Corals Die
by Jennifer M.T. Magel and Julia K. Baum
Despite the many challenges facing the world’s oceans today, coral reefs remain strongholds of marine biodiversity.
Warnings of Worse-Than-Usual Hurricane Season Point to Trouble Ahead
Warnings of Worse-Than-Usual Hurricane Season Point to Trouble Ahead
by Eoin Higgins
Hurricane season is about to start and its risks will only grow and potentially compound any impacts from the pandemic.
Australia, It's Time To Talk About Our Water Emergency
Australia, It's Time To Talk About Our Water Emergency
by Quentin Grafton et al
There’s another climate change influence we must also face up to: increasingly scarce water on our continent.
Fossil Fuels Are Heading Down, But Not Yet Out
Fossil Fuels Are Heading Down, But Not Yet Out
by Kieran Cooke
Renewable energy is making rapid inroads into the market, but fossil fuels still wield enormous global influence.
Human Action Will Decide How Much Sea Levels Rise
Human Action Will Decide How Much Sea Levels Rise
by Tim Radford
Sea levels will go on rising, because of human action. By how much, though, depends on what humans do next.