If We Covered The Sahara Desert With Solar Panels, Won’t That Curb Global Warming?

If We Covered The Sahara Desert With Solar Panels, Won’t That Curb Global Warming?

On the surface the question, this question looks like a no brainer. Can’t we solve the menace of global warming by just harvesting the sunlight where it shines brightest and longest?

View of the Sahara Desert from the ISS; huge land getting lots of strong sunlight

Well, that is precisely the question the, The Inquiry placed fourth before four experts as they discussed radical proposals to combat global warming.

One of these experts was Dr. Gerhard Knies, a co-founder of TREC; a network of experts working on sustainable energy that created the Desertec Initiative. This organization’s goal is to provide green energy to the European market by harnessing clean energy from sun-rish desert lands.

Dr. Knies told The Inquiry, “Fifteen minutes after I learned about the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, I made an assessment of how much energy comes from the Sun to Earth. It was about 15,000 times as much as humanity was using, so it was not a question of the source, it was a question of the technology.”

Dr. Knies is proposing more investment towards technology that harvests the solar energy. Arguing that it will not only solve the looming industrial vulnerability our modern civilization is facing but also, will go a long way in mitigating adverse climate change effects.

The next experts to whom The Inquiry, asked about the viability of solar paneling the Sahara Desert to curb global warming was Tony Patt. He is a professor of climate policy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He also leads the research team for the European Research Council on the investigation if the Sahara sun could power Europe.

Patt told the Inquiry, “The technology is good. It’s matured a lot in the last few years in terms of thermal storage. That allows you to take the heat that you capture from the Sun and store it for, let’s say, up to a day, and produce the power later. That means you can generate it around the clock. And the Sahara desert is so big that if there is cloudy weather, it’s localized, and with thermal storage, it can provide absolutely reliable power.”

Patt is from Boston, USA. A City that gets much of its power from the northern Quebec, located some 1,000 miles away. All these powers supplied to Boston comes through a single power cable, so Patt argues although setting up long-distant power transmission cables can be costly, they are hardly hard to build. The only thing needed is the political good will from all the involved jurisdictions.

Patt says, “They don’t lose much power. Maybe over 1,000 miles, you lose 2%. The biggest potential pitfall is that it’s politically complicated. You’re not going to develop solar energy in the Sahara unless you have a very strong state involvement, both on the side of the consumers and the project developers.”

The third correspondent was Daniel Egbe, an evaluator for the World Bank, a chemist, and an academician. He is also the founder of ANSOLE; a network of Africans for Africa focusing on renewable energy.

Egbe although shares the view that the Sahara Desert should be used to produce renewable energy, he also wants to see how sub-Saharan Africa benefits from such initiatives. As Daniel Egbe puts it to the Inquiry:

Africa has an acute energy problem. Only around 30% of sub-Saharan Africans have access to electricity. Economic growth in Africa in now around 5.5%, but this is hampered by lack of energy.

The presentations which were given in the past have arrows showing how energy will be funneled to the north. But there was no arrow pointing down to sub-Saharan Africa. As an African, knowing the history about the exploitation of the continent, where there is a big gap when it comes to riches, and Africa is still poor due to the colonial past and the slave time, nobody can just come and do things as if we are still in the past.

Things have changes. Africans are self-confident now, they want to participate in their development, and they want to have part of their resources, they are not just there to always give the rest of the world and remain poor. The African Network for Solar Energy is there to see that the African interest is taken into consideration.”

Must Read: Building The Great Green Wall of Africa could curb the growth of Sahara Desert into sub-Sahara Africa

The next respondent was Helen Anne Curry, a lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. Unlike the three respondents above, she feels that technology alone may not be enough solution.

Curry argues, “The technological fix is appealing, it’s exciting to think we can solve problems without fundamentally having to change the way we live, the way we get to work every day or the number of cheap flights we take.

But you can’t just take one point in the system and say ‘that’s solved,’ there is much more that extends outwards.”

Curry gives an example from the mid-20th century where in some countries in a bid to address the problem of air pollutions, factories built super-tall smokestacks. This solution only solved the issue by throwing up the smoke much further up the atmosphere, but it circulated the Earth nonetheless. It also ended up creating acidic rains in places much further from those areas; places that either had nothing or petite industrial activities.

Using super-tall smokestacks to address air pollution had unintended environmental pollutions in places located further [Gettty Images]

Curry says, “We can use our science and technology knowledge to bring other peoples of the world into the quality of life that the global north has enjoyed for far longer. Yet if you look back on 60 years of policy work and intervention, there’s a lot of ways in which we’ve failed. We haven’t been able to deliver the social, scientific and technological progress we envisioned.

I think the only reason to pursue [solar panels in the Sahara] would be if it were a stopgap measure in which the long-term goal would be to reduce consumption of energy and to change our lifestyles to be more sustainable, so that subsequent generations don’t have to deal with as many problems as we’re going to leave them.”

This article was sourced from BBC World Service’s The Inquiry; you can listen to it live online or download the podcast.

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