How come we haven’t covered the Sahara Desert with solar panels yet?

In 1986, German particle physicist Gerhard Knies said that « we are really, as a species, so stupid [not to make better use of solar energy] ». We are constantly being repeated that a transition to green and clean energy is crucial, especially as our energy needs keep increasing. While megacities are beginning to install solar panels on our roofs, it’s impossible not to ask ourselves why the Sahara Desert, the area which receives the most sunlight on Earth, still has not been exploited to its full potential.

A bit of history & the wakeup call.

Already in 1914, American engineer Frank Shuman wrote in a letter to the Scientific American magazine that "The human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism.'' While there weren’t any concerns regarding the limits of fossil fuel resources yet, greenhouse emissions were suspected to be responsible for an increase in global temperatures. However, it is the dangers of nuclear power, which was initially, and still is today by some politicians, considered as a ‘clean’ energy, which really spread awareness for the need for safer and more environmentally friendly resources. Indeed, in 1986 — two decades before Fukushima — the potential terrible consequences of a nuclear accident were seen. Quite ironically, during a safety test of the reactor at Chernobyl, a catastrophic explosion happened causing the death of 31 people in part because of the initial dose of radiation they deceived. In addition, the lasting effect of the fallout also caused further deaths. This, therefore, pushed scientists to find new ways to supply mankind’s needs for energy.

The potential of the Sahara Desert

Following this, Gerhard Knies searched for new energy resources and discovered the potential of the Sahara Desert. After a few calculations, he found that the solar energy received by the Sahara Desert in just six hours is greater than the total energy consumed by all humans in a year. And while this calculation was made in the 80’s, the results are still relevant. In 2015, the total global energy usage was around 17,4 TW power. To supply such energy demand, 43,000 square miles of solar panels, representing just 1.2% of the 3.6 million square miles of the Sahara Desert. In addition, the Great Sahara Desert is the area which receives the most sunlight on Earth Coal, oil, and nuclear could never possibly compete with that.

A frequent question raised is what would be the effect of covering the desert with solar panels, especially on ecosystems. But the fact that just 1.2% of the desert could replace all other energy resources in the world can certainly reassure us: the environmental gains from this project would most probably far outweigh the possible damage on the relatively small area of the desert (think of the effects of coal mining, acid rain, and nuclear waste). Actually, solar panels could create a new ecosystem in the region or help existing ones to flourish as the panels can provide shade. Actually, the dark color of solar panels could increase rainfall, thus allowing the desert to retrieve the vegetation it most probably possessed a thousand years ago. Indeed, this dark color would warm the ground causing the air to rise and form clouds. Furthermore, solar farms can also help limit sandstorms which contaminate the air and cause dramatic peaks of pollution in nearby cities by stabilizing the sand.

It is impossible to imagine that such potential wouldn’t attract large investors, and it initially did. Indeed, the Desertec Project was launched in 2009 and planned to cover some areas of the Sahara with solar panels to then provide most of this energy to North African and Middle Eastern countries while the rest could be exported to Europe to cover 15% of its energy needs (which would generate €60 billion euros). Meanwhile, Europeans would save €30 per MWh. Thus, it could have been seen as a win-win situation, without even taking into account the number of jobs this could create.

But the reason this project still has not seen the light of the day could suggest that it’s still a mirage: funding, technology, but most importantly political tensions and backlash from colonial times have seriously limited the exploitation of the desert.

The limits of the Saharan Desert project: funding, technology, and colonial history

Technically, there is one very simple issue but yet extremely complicated to solve that prevents us from creating solar farms in the Sahara Desert: cleaning them. Indeed, it is estimated that solar panels’ degradation can reach 2% per day due to dusty conditions. While this may not seem dramatic at first sight, efficiencies can decrease quite rapidly because of this. In turn, a high volume of water is needed to wash the panels which thus creates another environmental issue. Add to this the fact that their production is not 100% environmentally-friendly — a semiconductor manufacturing technology is needed (meaning that the materials produced must have electric conductivity which is between that of a conductor and an insulator) which thus generates pollution. Moreover, capacity management makes the project even more utopian. Indeed, Susanne Nies, head of Energy Policy and Generation at Eurelectric, the European electricity industry association, explains that “At a very basic level, we are still missing lines and capacities for export […] Spain is already struggling with its own excess renewables production – additional imports from third countries would certainly compound the problem”. What Nies points out is that there is a lack of grids to connect Maghreb and Europe at a level of energy which would exceed 100GW. Thus, large funding in research and development would be crucial to make this dream a reality, which, according to Desertec, would not even happen before 2050. Therefore, the high cost of the project — 400 billion euros — explains why out of the 17 initial investors (which included EON, Siemens, and Deutsche Bank) only three remained just five years later after the beginning of the project.

But technology and funding are not the only factors which made investors opt out of the project for more near-term profits: the political tensions and European colonial history adds another dimension of issues. Experts such as Professor Tony Day, director of the Centre for Efficient and Renewable Energy in Building at London South Bank University, Henry Wilkinson of Janusian Security Risk Management, and Wolfram Lacher of Control Risks consultancy have researched this issue and concluded these political issues consist in dramatically important obstacles to the project’s success. First of all, centering the world’s power supply in Libya, a country that has been and is being devastated by a civil war, clearly puts forward the critical security aspects of the project. More generally, for the whole of Europe to rely on countries which, for some, have had issues with corruption has increased concerns over the project. Desertec would also need for Algeria and Morocco to extensively work together when these two countries have closed their common border due to to a conflict regarding the Western Sahara. In addition, the large-scale cooperation between North African and European countries seems challenging due to heavy bureaucratic policies and, in particular, expropriation of assets. This explains why while the Arab League initially supported Desertec, countries member of the group are now backing off. For instance the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy’s board member Obaïd Amrane emphasized that electricity consumption dramatically increasing in the country (due to a betterment in living standards) combined with the fact that 97% of Morocco’s energy resources are imported is pushing the Moroccan government to first keep new energy resources for the country rather than to sell it to Europe. More generally, there is also a form of reticence from local citizens due to colonial history. Indeed, Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe, a member of the African Network for Solar Energy, underlined that "[Europeans] make promises, but at the end of the day, they bring their engineers, they bring their equipment, and they go. It's a new form of resource exploitation, just like in the past». Thus, while the initial idea seemed great, funding, technology, and politics make it quite difficult for it to see the light of the day.

There is, however, a glimpse of hope for this project to happen. Dry cooling is a recent technology that could clean solar panels at a higher price but without using as much water as normally needed. In addition, an EU innovation project brought about the improvement of a silicone-based film with a Nano-Dentrite structure on it. The film is melded over the solar panels and the Nano-Dentrite structure makes that sand, water, salt, microscopic organisms, and molds cannot grip unto the Photovoltaic panels, therefore reducing the need to frequently clean these. Moreover, while the idea of transmitting solar energy on very long distance has been often criticized, research has shown that the energy could be “cascaded” from one country to another in order for each state to collect its energy from a neighboring one rather than from far-away desert areas. Lastly, while the political obstacles are numerous, the direct effects of climate change on populations are increasingly portraying the emergency of the green transition. This, added to international and domestic pressure, could hopefully push countries to collaborate to create a safer, brighter, and more environmentally friendly future.


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