Scientists are considering making the Sahara into a giant solar farm. One of the unintended consequences of solar panels in the desert, however, might be their contribution to global warming.
Researchers imagine it might be possible to transform the world’s largest desert, the Sahara, into a giant solar farm, capable of meeting four times the world’s current energy demand. Blueprints have been drawn up for projects in Tunisia and Morocco that would supply electricity for millions of households in Europe.
While the black surfaces of solar panels absorb most of the sunlight that reaches them, only a fraction (around 15%) of that incoming energy gets converted to electricity. The rest is returned to the environment as heat. The panels are usually much darker than the ground they cover, so a vast expanse of solar cells will absorb a lot of additional energy and emit it as heat, affecting the climate.
If these effects were only local, they might not matter in a sparsely populated and barren desert. But the scale of the installations that would be needed to make a dent in the world’s fossil energy demand would be vast, covering thousands of square kilometers. Heat re-emitted from an area this size will be redistributed by the flow of air in the atmosphere, having regional and even global effects on the climate.
And there’s a study:
A 2018 study used a climate model to simulate the effects of lower albedo on the land surface of deserts caused by installing massive solar farms. Albedo is a measure of how well surfaces reflect sunlight. Sand, for example, is much more reflective than a solar panel and so has a higher albedo.
The model revealed that when the size of the solar farm reaches 20% of the total area of the Sahara, it triggers a feedback loop. The heat emitted by the darker solar panels (compared to the highly reflective desert soil) creates a steep temperature difference between the land and the surrounding oceans that ultimately lowers surface air pressure and causes moist air to rise and condense into raindrops. With more monsoon rainfall, plants grow and the desert reflects less of the sun’s energy since vegetation absorbs light better than sand and soil. With more plants present, more water is evaporated, creating a more humid environment that causes vegetation to spread.
This scenario might seem fanciful, but studies suggest that a similar feedback loop kept much of the Sahara green during the African Humid Period, which only ended 5,000 years ago.
There’s more. It raises interesting questions. It wouldn’t be the first time that we played around with nature and made matters worse.