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Home Filling the Sahara Desert with solar panels promises to provide renewable energy for the entire planet; in fact, it is a disastrous idea due to its consequences and complications

Filling the Sahara Desert with solar panels promises to provide renewable energy for the entire planet; in fact, it is a disastrous idea due to its consequences and complications

19 May 2024 to 20: 39
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energy - solar energy - photovoltaic energy - solar panels - solar panel
Solar panels in the Sahara: sustainable energy or environmental disaster? Explore the challenges and impacts of this idea.”

Solar panels in the Sahara: sustainable energy or environmental disaster? Explore the challenges and impacts of this idea.”

The recent energy crisis has caused electricity prices would fire. And this has driven an accelerated installation of solar panels around the world. Thanks to the growing popularity of this renewable energy, the price of these devices has been reduced in recent years. Although the persistent problem remains the same: where to put all these panels?

To provide enough solar energy to supply energy to the entire world, around 51 billion solar panels would be needed, which would occupy an area of ​​approximately 186.000 square kilometers. That's just 3,27% of the US. But the logical thing would be to think that the appropriate location for such an installation should be somewhere with a lot of sun, which is rarely shaded by clouds. A place like… a desert?

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The Sahara is the largest desert in the world, measuring 9,2 million square kilometers. Thus, this solar energy megafarm would only take up about 3,25%, a reasonable area of ​​the desert that, if configured correctly, would barely force the displacement of some humans and animals. It wouldn't even be necessary to deforest. Furthermore, as physicist Gerhard Knies has pointed out, in just six hours deserts around the world receive more solar energy (173.000 terawatts) than humans consume in a year.

But the truth is that, despite having enough energy to largely power our civilization, there are many economic and environmental factors that make it practically impossible to accomplish this feat. First: the difficulty. Second: the cost would be astronomical. And third: it would destroy the planet's ecosystems.

In fact, the Desertec initiative was one such project that planned to cover the Sahara desert with solar panels in hopes of meeting the energy needs of the Middle East, North Africa and 15% of Europe. Although renowned companies in the industry wanted to participate, the plan soon proved unfeasible.

First Difficulty: Maintenance

Maintaining a solar farm in the desert is extremely difficult. Mainly because both maintenance and installation are not the same as in cities. The harsh environment of deserts and the accumulation of dust on solar panels impair their operation and efficiency. Furthermore, the movement of sand and arid, scorching winds require a very resistant installation. And that would mean that the infrastructure would be more expensive. Much more expensive.

Not only that. The cost of having staff available 24/7 to provide constant maintenance and monitoring would be another huge drain on money and something very difficult to accomplish.

Second Challenge: The Cost

Installing a 350W solar panel costs between €200 and €400 on a residence. In the desert, it would be more expensive. First, it would be necessary to build supports for the panels, transport them to the middle of nowhere and create new electrical infrastructure over dunes and rocky terrain. According to calculations by journalist Will Locket in this Medium article, just considering the price of the panel, delivery and installation, this would already cost around €1.000 per unit. If we multiply this value by the number of panels needed, we would obtain a total of 514 trillion euros, 23 times more than the entire US economy.

But there is more. It is necessary to consider that, if we want to send all this energy anywhere in the world, we would need batteries to store the energy produced during the day and power the production at night (not all countries have the same schedules). This would mean adding around 4,2 kWh of battery storage to each panel, increasing the cost by another €900.

And wait, because now comes the most painful part: taking energy from the Sahara. Transportation is another worrying issue, as sending power to its destination requires huge electrical lines, which is very expensive and results in an energy loss of up to 10%. Currently, the longest power line is just 3.200 kilometers. Considering that the longer it takes, the more energy is lost along the way, it would be necessary to compensate for these losses by adding even more costs. Something that is very unlikely with the technology we have today.

In case of turning the Sahara into a huge solar farm, only 15% – 25% of the energy absorbed by the solar panels would be converted into electricity. Source: Science every day

Third and Most Important: The Environment1

All of this could be accomplished, albeit with difficulty, in a hypothetical future. But doing so would lead directly to our extinction. It must be borne in mind that deserts are by no means useless, but, above all, that any ecosystem plays a fundamental role in the global environment. In the case of turning the Sahara into a huge solar farm, only 15% of the energy absorbed by solar panels would be converted into electricity. And the rest would be returned to the atmosphere in the form of heat, which would greatly worsen global warming.

The evidence is provided by a 2018 study that used a climate model to simulate the effects on the land surface of deserts caused by the installation of these solar panels. Research suggests that when solar farm size reaches 20% of the total Sahara area, a feedback loop is triggered. The heat produced by the darker solar panels (compared to the reflective ground) creates a large temperature difference that ends up reducing air pressure and moistening the climate, creating rain.

These rains would cause plants to grow in the desert, which would then reflect less solar energy, as vegetation absorbs light better than sand and soil. With more plants, more water also evaporates, creating a more humid environment that would spread the vegetation even further. A green desert sounds good, doesn't it?

The truth is that many of our ecosystems depend on the fact that the Sahara is an arid desert. The Amazon, for example, is fertilized by dust blowing from the Sahara. The Atlantic is also fertilized by dust from the Sahara. Its nutrient-rich sand favors algae vegetation, which produces a large amount of oxygen on the planet.

However, the most severe effect would be an increase in Earth's surface temperature. Although it may seem contradictory, water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas, almost worse than CO2. This would end up warming the planet, causing the loss of the ice sheet and altering ocean currents, ultimately resulting in the destruction of biodiversity around the world. In short: each ecosystem is connected and modifying one of them can trigger a domino effect with devastating consequences.

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