Solar Panels in the Sahara
Heavily exacerbated by human activities such as deforestation and combustion of fossil fuels, climate change has become an increasingly prevalent issues nowadays. Therefore, renewable sources of energy such as solar and hydro-electric power are being developed and enhanced continuously. Such energy is used in various areas like transportation and machinery in efforts to reduce fossil fuel usage.
When people think of solar power, they tend to think of solar panels as well. One common misconception is that solar panels solely produce clean electricity and have little to no side effects. In theory, this would mean they are extremely efficient. If so, why have we not maximised its usage by placing them in areas with plentiful sunlight, namely deserts? They also tend to be rich in silicon – a material crucial in producing solar panels.
As reported by an article published early this year, the ten largest solar power generators in the world are all located in deserts, meaning that this concept has already been implemented to some extent. If the largest desert in the world - the Sahara - is converted into a solar and wind power generator farm, it would theoretically be capable of producing four times the current global electricity demand. However, according to research conducted using a model, published in 2018, covering even just 20% of the entire Sahara would catalyse several environmental changes and terraform it, causing rainfall that would cause plant life to grow and, in turn, result in more rainfall. While it may help us greatly mitigate the extensive use of fossil fuels, it may also affect climate change negatively and not contribute to fixing the overall issue.
Image Source: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6406/1019
An issue raised within the article is that solar panels tend to re-emit around 85% of all the solar energy they receive as heat. Of course, there would hardly be any effect if the solar panels were sparsely located, but since this phenomenon is present in every one of the high number of solar panels necessary to convert the entire Sahara into a viable solar farm, climate change could potentially worsen globally. Covering only 50% of the Sahara with solar panels would result in a local temperature rise of around 2.5°C, and a global temperature rise of almost 0.4°C. At first glance, this seems negligible. However, this change would be uneven across the globe: it'll be concentrated on the poles, meaning that they would melt faster and contribute more to global warming. As a result, this could lead to droughts in the Amazon rainforest, which massively helps reduce CO2 emissions and climate change, and cyclones on South Asian and North American coasts.
All of these repercussions are without even considering its impact on biodiversity in the Sahara and across the world, and the effect it may have on the ocean and life within it. It goes to show that we should always consider potential results of our actions before they are taken; while solar panels in the Sahara seem a viable alternative to dirtier electricity production methods, with in-depth research, it is clear that its consequences could be unimaginable if implemented incorrectly or on too large a scale.
Written by Mana Ganesh Kawamura
Edited by Nichapatr (Petch) Lomtakul