The vast Sahara Desert in Africa is inhospitable to plants and animals, but quite suitable for movie sets such as Luke Skywalker’s desert home planet of Tatooine in Star Wars. But it could be home to so much more.
It’s so sunny and hot in the Sahara all year round that scientists have started to suggest that a small part of the large desert could turn into one giant solar power project capable of powering Europe and even the world.
Theoretically, the Sahara desert has huge potential to be the world’s biggest renewable energy source. But in practice, there are technological, regulatory, environmental, and political hurdles to turning the Sahara into one giant solar park.
According to Amin Al-Habaibeh, Professor of Intelligent Engineering Systems at the Nottingham Trent University, the total solar energy available in the Sahara desert exceeds 22 billion gigawatt hours (GWh) annually. To put this in context, if all the Sahara were one giant solar farm, it would generate 2,000 times more energy than the largest power station in the world, which generates 100,000 GWh annually, Al-Habaibeh writes in The Conversation.
Theoretically, solar energy generated in the Sahara desert could meet all of Europe’s electricity needs with a low-carbon renewable energy source.
Professor Al-Habaibeh argues that there are two solar power technologies that could be used—concentrated solar power (CSP) tech and the most common type of solar generation in the world, photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. But each of those two systems has their drawbacks. CSP would be ideal in the hot and always sunny weather, but its lenses and mirrors used to concentrate the power in one spot could be dusted by sand storms and would require water to clean. The heat from CSP generates electricity from steam turbines, which are still a complex technology to use in solar-powered generation.
PV solar panels, on the other hand, see their efficiency drop when they are too hot, and it’s often very hot in the Sahara, Al-Habaibeh says. PV solar system would also need water to clean the panels, which could end up covered in sand after sand storms.
Then there is the issue with harmonized regulation and legislation because there are several countries in the Sahara desert, including a restive Libya which is currently fighting a civil war.
Next, there is the problem with what experts call ‘climate justice’.
According to Olufemi Taiwo, a philosopher who researches climate justice at Georgetown University, sub-Saharan Africa’s potential power exports to Europe may boost European energy security but will do very little to help a still vast portion of the African population who don’t have access to electricity.
Huge solar and wind installations in the Sahara desert could also have unintended consequences, which should also be taken into account, Alona Armstrong, Senior lecturer at Lancaster University, wrote in The Conversation last year, citing a study which suggests that huge solar and wind installations would raise local temperatures and increase rainfall and later—vegetation. While turning parts of the Sahara green for the first time in several thousand years may be a good thing, the study suggests that experts and researchers should take into account the unintended consequences of large-scale solar and wind deployment in the region.
The political and regulatory landscape in the countries lying in the Sahara desert should also be considered in any project, Armstrong says.
“Though mass amounts of cheap Saharan energy sounds like a great thing, it is not clear it would be a secure enough investment for the economics to add up,” she writes.
One previous attempt to have large solar and wind systems in the Sahara power Europe has already failed. A Germany-based company, Desertec, proposed in 2009 a massive project to export electricity from the desert to Europe. A few years later, however, many of the shareholders backing the project called it quits, because of very high costs and because they were not so interested in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
In the United States, theoretically, a small part of a sunny U.S. state could power the entire country with solar panels, Elon Musk said in 2017.
“If you wanted to power the entire U.S. with solar panels, it would take a fairly small corner of Nevada or Texas or Utah; you only need about 100 miles by 100 miles of solar panels to power the entire United States,” Musk said at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in July 2017. “The batteries you need to store the energy, to make sure you have 24/7 power, is 1 mile by 1 mile. One square-mile. That’s it.”
In theory, large-scale solar projects could power entire countries and continents, but in practice there are still high barriers to making this a reality.