That is the promising headline of a BBC news article. They referred to a paper in Science from the University of Illinois. Lead author Yan Li explains that they modelled what would happen if (really) huge parts of the Sahara desert are covered by renewable energy sources. They calculated that if 9 million km2 of the Sahara is covered, then precipitation would more than double and vegetation cover fraction would increase by about 20%. It has to be of that scale, fewer panels and turbines would have a limited effect.
The researchers focused on this region because it is close to large energy markets in Europe and the Middle East (weird, the journalist forget Africa as a close-by energy market) and they add that such “a massive installation in the desert would generate four times the amount of energy that the world currently uses every year”.
The impact on humans living there would be “mostly positive”: the extra rain will improve agriculture and growth in production of livestock.
Now my head begins to spin. It solves the EU energy transition, optimizes land use, creates more precipitation therefor greening the desert & beneficial for agriculture/livestock and, in one fell swoop, it fixes the climate. Everybody wins.
Not so fast! It seems pretty straight forward to look at the Sahara as a potential energy provider able to deliver plentiful solar and wind power, but it is anything but. There are some things that the journalist is rather silent about.
First, that region is not ours…
The Sahara covers (large parts of) several countries: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia and Western Sahara. It seems the researchers also included the Sahel, so add Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia and Somaliland.
More, that region is politically rather unstable, there is terrorist activity in the Sahel and the corruption of several of these countries is high. When we take for example the Sahara (which is the largest part of the selected region), then Tunisia has a ranking of 75 in the corruption perception index (the lower the better) and all others occupy places higher than 100. Two of those even rank in the bottom 6. Compare this to Europe: most European countries have a ranking below 30. Even if an agreement could be reached with all/most of those countries, it is not sure that this agreement will be honored in the future. I am not sure whether the Europe/EU/rest of the world wants to be dependable for its energy on a rather unstable region.
I am also not really sure whether the project is economically viable. Filling up 9 million km2 with solar and wind power installations, that is a massive amount of solar panels and windmills (provided that the raw materials are available). Who is going to do those investments? One thing is for sure, it will not be the host countries.
Then there is the issue of infrastructure and maintenance. The Sahara might be “close” to Europe and the Middle East, but it is not that inaccessible. Working in a desert region with sandy soil and shifting dunes will not be an easy task. There will be a need for a good infrastructure to allow for the installation, but also for the cleaning of the panels (with what?), the maintenance of the installations and protecting the installations against the shifting sand (or dig them out from time to time). 9 million km2 of installation will need a massive work force of technicians who need to be living there and will need some level of comfort.
Installation, infrastructure works and maintenance in such a region will be a huge cost. Not only that. Being able to produce four times the energy that the world currently needs is one thing. Harnessing that amount of power is another. Even if it is up and working as it supposed to be, the output will be intermittent. There will probably be a huge surge of solar energy during the day time (of the Sahara region) and this may not always coincide with the demand in other regions. So the European grid needs to be strengthen to allow for such peaks, which is also an extra cost. It is also not possible to rely too much on that power, so a reasonable amount of backup power will be needed that sits idle some of the time. Which is yet an additional economical cost (investments need to be made to install/maintain such power plants but will not be able to pay these off, so subsidies are needed).
I hope the researchers also took all that into account (I do not hold my breath for it).
Then there are some unintentional consequences. The authors state that such a massive installation will not only change precipitation, but will also increase surface temperatures, therefor strengthening the Saharan heat low. Isn’t there the risk that this potentially disturbs weather patterns, also outside the Sahara? I doubt that the influence will only stay within the borders of those countries. This is not one butterfly flapping its wings, this is not even a flock of butterflies flapping their wings, these are massive flocks of giant butterflies flapping their wings.
This seems to be confirmed by the modeled rain impacts graph in the article:
There are the blue areas of the Sahel, but there are also some brown spots (meaning relatively less precipitation) around the Sahara/Sahel region. For example the South of Spain, Northern part of Morocco, Gabon, Congo, Oman, UEA,… There is also the spot near the Horn of Africa that catches my eye. Probably South Sudan and part of Ethiopia? This is a region prone to droughts already, I can imagine that they are not going to be happy when they hear that those installations will give more precipitation in the Sahara/Sahel region, but less precipitation where they live…
Another unintended consequence will be the influence on the current plant and animal life. There might not be many plants and animals in a desert, but these are very specialized creatures, living in a delicate balance with that specific climate. What will happen when surface temperatures and precipitation suddenly increase? What will happen when huge infrastructure works are being done and massive amounts of windmills/solar panels are erected in their habitat? Some species will probably benefit, others not so much. Some even might go extinct if they can’t adapt to the new conditions. Green organizations should be horrified in the face of such an unprecedented disturbance of this habitat.
One can not whack in infrastructure and solar panels/windmills in 75% of the Sahara (and the Sahel) and expect it having no environmental consequences. Okay, you could say that the extinction of some obscure species of desert beetle is well worth it because it is compensated by the clean energy we get in return. But that smells like colonialism. I can vividly image the reaction of social justice warrior types when they hear that Europe/EU is going to exploit the Sahara/Sahel region for their own benefit… That could give some rather interesting discussions to watch 😉
Concluding: the paper is probably some theoretical exercise without a connection to reality. I really start to wonder what the actual goal of that paper is. Could it be this:
“The main message for people, policymakers, and investors is the enormous benefits to the people, society, and ecosystem as a result of these solar and wind farms.”
“We hope that, in the light of our findings, and because of the primary climate effect of these farms is the reduction of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting mitigation of climate change, we could transform our energy sources. That can lead in turn to sustaining freshwater, food, and life on our planet.”
The paper could well be politically motivated rather than scientific and those “enormous benefits” could only be found when the researchers and journalists frantically avoiding mentioning the disadvantages of these solar and wind farms in the “Sahara”.