Can the desert save us?

A world of power

A simple truth; if we cover 1.2% of the Sahara desert with modern solar panels we can convert enough energy to power the entire world. That’s a fact.

This isn’t particularly new information. After excitedly blurting it out all over Facebook messenger immediately upon reading the headline somewhere online recently I was abruptly informed by multiple acquaintances (I used to consider them friends, hehe, Jay Kay) that this particular piece of hope shaped certitude has been doing the rounds for a few years now. But I didn’t know about it, and maybe you didn’t either, and my goodness me it nearly made me jump for joy while shouting ‘flaming hell people, cancel the Wednesday evening marketing strategy meetings and get your arses to the desert, there’s a planet needs saving!’….. So I’ve put it on the wall.

My face when I read the headline. Okay this is actually just a silly selfie I sent to someone before I tucked into a monstrously delicious dinner, but you get the idea, I was shocked!

It’s a crazy statistic to read though, as my expression above underlines. It seems so simple, but let’s not be silly barking billy’s here, because nothing in this world is ever as simple as it seems. So here’s the lowdown.

In just six hours, the worlds deserts receive more energy from the sun than the entire human race consumes in a year. Six flaming hours! (quite literally flaming in this case) That’s just flaming madness! (again) It doesn’t sound real, but it’s true. Now that’s a whole lot of driving to work and driving back from work and driving to the shops and buying things in the shops and keeping the big lights on in the big massive shops for twenty four hours a day seven days a week and driving back from the shops and watching atrociously terrible TV programs for five hours every evening while also using your smartphone and your smartwatch and your oversized tablet and your laptop while being bombarded from all angles with a relentless stream of advertisements about what you should buy next from the big bright shops, from just six hours of sunlight. (Maybe harnessing this desert energy isn’t such a good idea after all?)

In just six hours, the worlds deserts receive more energy from the sun than the entire human race consumes in a year.

According to Mehran Moalem, a professor at U.C Berkeley and expert on nuclear materials and nuclear fuel cycle, the total world energy consumption in 2015 (it has gone up a little since then) was 17.3 Terawatts continuous power during the year. Also according to Dr. Moalem, by covering an area of the earth 335 km by 335 km with averagely efficient (does that make sense? I’m going with it) modern day solar panels, more than 17.4 Terawatts of power would be generated a year, which leaves a whole 0.1 Terawatts of power a year left over according to my calculations. Let’s have a Terawatt party to celebrate! Given that the Sahara desert has an area of roughly 3.6 million square miles, and the area required to achieve this magic Terawatt number is 43,000 square miles, and the Sahara is probably the bestest hottest most wonderful place in the world if you have a lifetime supply of factor billion sun cream and a large bottle of water that replenishes itself by magic, it can be calculated that covering just 1.2% of the Sahara desert in solar panels would be sufficient to cater for all of the worlds energy needs. Pretty astonishing stuff. So why haven’t we done it yet?

Cover the small square in solar panels and we can power Washington Dc. Cover the middle square and we can power Europe. Cover the large square and we can power…… the whole flipping world! And those squares are tiny! Well actually, in real life they’re pretty big, but the desert is a whoooooole lot bigger! What if we covered all the squares? Now that would be crazy.

Stumbling blocks

Committing to such a significant initial financial outlay for a project with relatively low chance of immediate profit has proven to be quite the stumbling block so far.

There are a number of reasons. Cost, as always, is a big one. The estimated cost of such a project clocks up to the modest sum of around five trillion dollars, one time cost. Sounds like a lot doesn’t it? Well. It was reported that the cost to bail out the banks after they made a few minor, understandable, honest mistakes back in 2008 (I wonder what the opposite of sarcasm is? Because I was not being that just then) was around $700 billion. According to Forbes that number is actually closer to $4.6 trillion, rising to a projected $16.8 trillion when the mess has been fully cleaned up. The estimate for next years US ‘defence’ budget is projected to be over $750 billion, and will probably be a lot more when all the hidden costs are accounted for. Now nobody can be sure exactly how accurate these figures are, but the point is that there’s an absolute desert load of cash knocking around that we could be using for silly little things like saving the planet if we started treating money abuse as an addiction instead of something to aspire to and ensured that every millionaire, billionaire, trillionaire and zillionaire receives the treatment they so dearly need to kick their dreadful habit for good. But nevertheless, we live in a world where short-term profit rains supreme, so committing to such a significant initial financial outlay for a project with relatively low chance of immediate profit has proven to be quite the stumbling block so far.

There are also issues when it comes to the environmental impact of producing the solar panels, the technology surrounding energy storage and transport, and the frustratingly inevitable geopolitical challenges that are nearly guaranteed to arise whenever a project like this needs to be spread across multiple borders.

All of these concerns came to fruition in one way or another during a project known as the Desertec industrial initiative, a venture largely driven by the German private sector with the aim of providing around 20% of Europe’s electricity by 2050 through a vast network of solar and wind farms stretching across the middle east and north Africa. Now that was quite the energy pumped mouthful. Not quite powering the entire world, but an ambitious plan nonetheless.

Desertec

Kicking off in 2009 with 17 big name investors including E.ON, Siemens, and Deutsche Bank, the project seemed like it was destined for success, but by 2014, after encountering all sorts of problems, only three partners remained, and the dream seemed to be over. So what went wrong? Plenty went wrong. The Desertec plan called for a centralised power station that would deliver electricity across three continents, and transporting that much energy across such long distances isn’t an easy task. There are also issues with storing the energy. (you can’t just keep the energy in the sand until people need to use it.) So the technology is an issue that needs working out. On top of this, political instability in the Sahara, as well as issues surrounding natural resource rights (entirely justified issues, as the sunlight in these regions can be considered a natural resource just like oil and coal, and the exploitation of this resource by the ‘international’ private sector should be taken very seriously, and discouraged if done in a way that fails to provide benefits for local communities and economies) ended up discouraging most of the investors. A five fold fall in price for solar panels and wind turbines in the EU also severely dented the profitability of the whole exercise, and we know how important profitability is. So the project failed. Well, not quite.

Here’s a picture of curvy solar panels, because you know, content! content! content! Look at how they curve though; great for the sand dunes I’d imagine! Groovy.

The project has been downscaled significantly since, but still lives on under the guise of ‘The Nur Energie Sahara to Europe Solar Export Plan’, another energy pumped mouthful, which aims to export 4.5 gigawatts of solar power from the northeastern edge of the Sahara, mainly Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, to Europe. Of course there is no guarantee that this project will prove to be a success, there are still plenty of issues with the technology that need working out, but it’s a cause for hope that there are people and institutions in the world who are actively working to find solutions to these problems, and with a little more cooperation between people we might just get there. (Slowly does it, but not too slowly!)

Sustainability for everyone

Speaking of cooperation between people though it’s important to highlight some of the social issues around projects like this. Tunisia for example depends largely on its neighbour Algeria for it’s energy needs, and can often face significant power cuts, so if this ‘Solar Export Plan’ intends to exploit Tunisian natural resources entirely for the purpose of exporting solar energy to Europe while making a tidy profit, without also providing for Tunisia’s energy needs and giving back to the local communities, then there’s a big problem. If we want to power the world sustainably, it needs to be sustainable for everyone. Sharing is caring and caring is essential baby! So power Tunisia first, (or whatever country the energy is being generated in) then some of the countries surrounding Tunisia, then send anything that’s left over to Europe, take it from there, gradually improve the technology, and as it improves, power more and more of the world until eventually, everyone’s a winner. Sound good? Good. And you know, there are even more reasons to get as many projects like this going as possible.

If we want to power the world sustainably, it needs to be sustainable for everyone. Sharing is caring and caring is essential baby!

An added Incentive

Researchers have concluded that installing huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines in the Sahara would have a major impact on rainfall, vegetation, and temperatures. “Our model results show that large-scale solar and wind farms in the Sahara would more than double the precipitation, especially in the Sahel, where the magnitude of rainfall increase is between 20mm and 500mm per year,” said Dr Yan Li, the lead author of a paper from the University of Illinois, US. “As a result, vegetation cover fraction increases by about 20%.” In the Sahel, the semi-arid region that lies to the south of the Sahara, average rainfall increased 1.12mm per day where wind farms were present, according to the study. This upturn in rainfall is generated by the mixing of air caused by the blades turning, where warmer air is mixed from above creating a feedback loop whereby more evaporation, precipitation and plant growth occurs. Solar panels contribute to an increase in rainfall by reducing the reflection of sunlight from the surface, a process known as ‘the albedo effect’, which leads to more solar energy absorption and surface warming, which in turn strengthens the Saharan heat low, (a thermal low, or heat low, is a non-frontal low-pressure area that occurs over the continents in the sub-tropics during the warm season) leading to more rising air and precipitation. Holy smouldering smokes I’m learning a lot today.

This data shows the projected increase in precipitation across Africa that would result from installing wind and solar farms on 9 million square kilometers of land. (About two entire Sahara deserts) Although an installation this large is unrealistic, (and unnecessary) the data illustrates how these wind and solar farms can have a dramatically positive effect on precipitation levels in the areas where they’re introduced, with the most noticeable improvements coming in the very driest regions. That blue band of juicy juicy rainfall on steroids that spans the width of Africa on the graph falls directly over the Sahel region, an area just below the Sahara desert with some of the driest occupied land in Africa. So crank up the wind turbines lads, we’re about to make it rain!

So not only will these initiatives go a long way to sustainably powering the entire gigawatt guzzling world, they will also directly combat the threat of desertification and dramatically increase the ability of some of the poorest, driest regions of the world to grow more food and improve biodiversity. I mean how absolutely wonderful is that? It’s very very absolutely wonderful, with an extra very on top in case it rains. (Let’s hope it rains.)

It’s all coming together nicely

Isn’t it great when things just fit together to create something beautiful?

Funnily enough I’ve already written a blog post about land regeneration in the Sahel region in Africa and how the farmers there are using natural methods to bring millions of hectares of land back to life and combat desertification and climate change. I followed that post up with a post about plants with superpowers that have been designed to absorb much more carbon from the atmosphere than regular plants and keep it there for longer as well. It struck me that both of these initiatives seem to compliment each other perfectly; the farmers in the Sahel are planting as many plants and trees as possible in an effort to combat climate change, and there are plants being designed to be more effective at combating climate change. Put both ideas together and the effectiveness only increases. And I swear I’m not actually choosing these blog posts strategically to fit them together, I’m choosing the topics randomly depending on what inspires me the most on the day, but add in some solar panels and wind turbines to the mix here, and they will actually increase the effectiveness even more. The farmers can regenerate their land using plants designed specifically to combat climate change, in an environment with significant increases in precipitation caused by the solar panels and wind turbines, meaning more of the plants will grow, and grow quicker, all while clean energy is being generated for the world to use.

Three separate initiatives, complimenting each other perfectly for the greater good of the planet. Sounds like some sort of human-made nature-friendly technological ecological ideological utopia or something! Sounds impossible.

If we can learn to work together and for each other, and move past all the political squabbling that’s been holding us back for so long, it’s really not.

About the Author

Adam Millett is a freelance writer, blogger, and published poet with an affinity for dressing up as Spiderman and writing about saving the planet. He likes to climb trees and stare at the stars in his spare time and likes to help sustainable businesses tell the world their stories while he’s working. Visit his website at wordchameleon.com if you want to tell the world yours.

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