Solar panels in the Sahara desert: A no brainer?

Total area of solar panels required to power the world?

IT’S SO obvious: why don’t they stick a load of solar panels in the Sahara Desert? School children have been asking this question since photovoltaic technology came on the market in the 1970s. It seems that almost fifty years later that’s still the plan.

This image shows how a small area in the 3.6 million square mile Sahara desert could provide all the solar electricity the world needs. The image below comes from Sepp Hasslberger’s website; he has an impressive moustache but the idea isn't his, it comes from a presentation by the Desertec Foundation: a not-for-profit founded by scientists, industrial and financial leaders who want to save the world using renewable technologies, specifically solar power in deserts.

total space required to power the world with solar panels

Desertec says that a combination of concentrated solar (mirrors) and solar PV (panels) in deserts really can save us. At the moment our energy use is hopelessly unsustainable and it’s likely our resources will run out within a single lifetime from now.

Desertec emerged from the Club of Rome, a collection of high level politicians and former world leaders who try to solve challenges faced by humanity. Desertec looked at sustainability projects in Tunisia at first, then moved onto talks with the Moroccan government; its strength is representing projects in the higher corridors of the EU and securing funding, and the Moroccan talks have turned into a solar project that should start feeding into the Moroccan and Spanish grids between 2014 and 2016. It’s setting its sights on Algeria for its next project. However, even though Desertec’s special focus is solar in deserts - just like we suggested when we were kids - it hasn't built any desert PV installations yet.

Invest billions in the Sahara desert? What could go wrong?

A few things. Risk management consultants have warned Desertec that terrorist could target their installations as a way to get at the countries the project supplies, and that if Europe and Africa came to depend so much on solar in North Africa it would create a risky dependency on the region, which is still largely corrupt and unstable following the Arab Spring, and where there is little cohesion between neighbouring states. Of course the opposite is true as well: would Middle Eastern and African nations really want a big project in their region that is imposed upon them by Europe?

Add to these political issues the fact of Saharan sandstorms and trade winds; perhaps it’s not so easy to solar charge the Sahara after all. It’s possible but will take great collaborative efforts and some relaxing of various nations’ political insecurities. Maybe we should stick them on the moon instead?

You probably don't have enough space to power our entire planet with solar panels, but you could power you home.

The Eco Experts can find your local installers to help you get started.

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