Solar and wind farms, stretched across North Africa’s Saharan desert and relying solely on existing technologies, could produce enough electricity to power the entire world. (That amount of electricity approximates over 21 terawatt hours.) As an added benefit these combined wind and solar arrays would also increase rain fail in the arid Sahel region thereby slowing the steady southern encroachment of the desert.
This was the conclusion arrived at by academic researchers using supercomputers. Teams at the University of Maryland and University of Illinois modeled their results in a study financed in part by a Chinese government agency. Their results were published in the prestigious journal Science (September 7).
Yes, we know it sounds farfetched. And even perhaps too ridiculous consider. But is it any crazier or more uneconomic than the two biggest nuclear construction projects currently underway in the U.S. and Europe? Spending $25 billion or more to erect bespoke nuclear power generating stations (when a comparable gas fired facility could be built at a relatively small fraction of the cost) shows that regardless of economics, for those that the politicians favor, funds can often be found.
And it is not just new nuclear technologies that should be singled out for economic excesses. Southern Company’s recent attempt at building a truly clean coal electric power generating station resulted in the $4 billion Kemper County project in Mississippi. That facility now only burns natural gas rendering large parts of the investment economically irrelevant.
But for sheer scale it is typically nuclear construction that provides the biggest numbers. In this regard consider the proposed $20-$30 billion ITER nuclear fusion project. The point? We already spend huge sums to experiment with and develop increasingly carbon free power sources. From a technological perspective the Sahara wind/solar project is practically “old school”. It relies exclusively on so called off the shelf, existing technologies.
The challenge as we see it, apart from financing, would come from the actual construction. Giant construction projects in relatively inhospitable climates almost always pose a challenge. This would be akin to building the Alaska pipeline or putting huge oil rigs in the North Sea or in Arctic waters.
A German consortium, DESERTEC, proposed a Saharan solar project in 2009 based on work that goes back to the 1980s. The organization made promising financial projections based on its research. Its shareholders included major Mediterranean infrastructure and electricity firms and State Grid of China.
Wind and solar projects can also produce “unintended consequences” for the environment as the Illinois and Maryland researchers gently put it. In the Saharan case though, the consequences, more precipitation, might actually be beneficial.
From the perspective of the earth’s surface, wind and solar farms change surface roughness and reflectance. This raises local temperatures–the last thing the Sahara needs. However, the temperature boost also increases the likelihood of precipitation, in fact doubling it in this particularly arid region. That would in turn lead to increases in vegetation growth. More vegetative ground cover increases evaporation which, in turn, increases precipitation. Solar farms by themselves could have a similar environmental impact.
Admittedly, the university researchers did not address a whole host of concerns: social, political, business and technological. The challenge of constructing solar and wind farms across the Sahara Desert and then delivering the power to those who need it is a daunting task. But the researchers did interestingly address the impact of the project on climate and concluded it would be beneficial. That’s at least a start.
Would relatively small European and American energy companies rise to a challenge of this magnitude? Or would the Sahara project developers, if there is one, propose this ambitious project to the Chinese as part of their One Belt, One Road Initiative? From a policy perspective China has made no secret of its interest in Africa. It would be ironic if they embarked on an ambitious undertaking like this while domestically the US plays “small ball” and focuses on subsidies for relatively uneconomic coal and nuclear power generating stations to extend their economic lives.
By Leonard Hyman and William Tilles