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Power Earth

Should We Fill the Sahara With Solar Panels? (bbc.com) 386

An anonymous reader writes: A panel of experts at the BBC discuss the possibility of re-purposing the Sahara Desert. Instead of having over 9 million square kilometers of barren sand, we could start a massive project to gradually fill it with solar panels. The remarks are illuminating: "The technology is good. It's matured a lot in the last few years in terms of thermal storage. 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." The difficulties turn out to be mostly political: "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." And one of the panelists points out that Africa must have a large share of the benefits: "Things have changed. 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 to the rest of the world and remain poor."
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Should We Fill the Sahara With Solar Panels?

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  • Sand Storms (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Spazmania ( 174582 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @09:18AM (#51214991) Homepage

    Solar panels don't like sand storms.

    • by The-Ixian ( 168184 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @10:14AM (#51215259)

      Nor sand worms

    • Yup. In addition to that, sand dune move! Slowly, but surely; like waves in water. Over a relatively short period of time, metric tons of sand will sweep over and consume the land, thus burying the infrastructure and destroying it in the process from the crushing weight. And unless you've got the means to provide solar powered maintenance vehicles to keep the sand away, ironically you'll be relying on fossil fuels to move the sand.

    • yup, thats why putting solar panels in the sahara will die in the planning stage, nobody with brains will invest in that crazy idea, nothing like sandblasted solar panels to waste money on
    • by malditaenvidia ( 4015209 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @11:33AM (#51215897)
      It's coarse and irritating and it gets everywhere.
  • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @09:24AM (#51215005)
    Islamic Solar In Sahara
    • Re:I.S.I.S. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ScentCone ( 795499 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @09:28AM (#51215037)
      Truly. Don't underestimate the "some people just want to watch the world burn" types. Groups like Boko Haram exist to destroy things they think are "too western," and are happy to slaughter whole towns full of people just to keep their profile up. As Islamic fundamentalism spreads through Africa, large and long-term projects like this - fragile things with a huge attack surface - will become favorite targets of the medieval-minded theocracy crowd.
      • As Islamic fundamentalism spreads through Africa...

        Long-term, fundamentalism fails. Remember how the Christian Church used to be?

        Destructive movements run counter to humanity's natural desires for comfort, safety and security. There's a reason why the most virulent movements spawn in the most backwards areas, where comfort, safety and security are at their lowest. And why they spend so much effort attempting to attack people who have moved on, trying to destroy their sense of security so that they, too will revert to barbarism.

        But comfort is a corrosive inf

        • by gtall ( 79522 )

          Okay, will you please contribute to my Solar Sahara project. We intend to populate Libya with solar panels but we need backers with money. Yours will do, fork it over.

        • Long-term, fundamentalism fails. Remember how the Christian Church used to be?

          There's at least one big, big, big difference: when the Christian Churches were fundamentalist, they were around the top of the human cultural development of their age, while this Islamist fundamentalism is at the bottom, at least from a western point of view.

          I can't see a Thomas Aquinas or a William of Ockham coming from ISIS (or from Saudi Arabia), nor I can see ISIS employing the next Bernini and Borromini.

        • Re:I.S.I.S. (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 31, 2015 @10:00AM (#51215179)

          As Islamic fundamentalism spreads through Africa...

          There's a reason why the most virulent movements spawn in the most backwards areas, where comfort, safety and security are at their lowest.

          According to THIS [washingtonpost.com], it's well-educated engineer types who are most likely to embrace terrorism.

          See also the recent terrorist attack in California. The male attacker (at least) was a well-educated, well-paid, long-term resident. He and his wife had a brand new baby, and the innocent people who they slaughtered had given them a baby shower earlier this year. That new baby is an orphan because the parents decided that slaughtering innocent people was more important than living their very successful lives and raising their child.

          Islam is different..

      • Truly. Don't underestimate the "some people just want to watch the world burn" types. Groups like Boko Haram exist to destroy things they think are "too western," and are happy to slaughter whole towns full of people just to keep their profile up. As Islamic fundamentalism spreads through Africa, large and long-term projects like this - fragile things with a huge attack surface - will become favorite targets of the medieval-minded theocracy crowd.

        Terrorists care less about attack surface and more about getting maximum bang for the buck, either literally or figuratively. This makes solar panel farms less attractive than a dam, skyscraper or nuclear power plant. It would be far easier for a terrorist groups to simply sabotage the electric grid, destroying a few critical transmission towers, than destroy individual solar panels across hundreds of squares miles of desert.

      • folks who just want to watch the world burn don't get very far. They can't because they destroy everything they trough. Folks like Boko Haram are just using age old techniques of fear and Balkanizing their population to gain power. This is why racism and classism are so important. As a ruler you need to divide the working class into groups that fight among themselves so you can seize control. The patterns repeat again and again in every major civilization.

        When you say crap like "Some people want to watc
      • Re:I.S.I.S. (Score:4, Informative)

        by hey! ( 33014 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @12:15PM (#51216191) Homepage Journal

        Except the Sahara is big. Really, really, really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. At 9.4 million square kilometers, it's over twice the size of the EU, and about 6% larger than the contiguous area of the contiguous 48 US states.

        So forget the idea of covering all the Sahara with solar plants; it's way too big. Since the idea is to supply Europe with power, you start with the parts that are closest to Europe, which are coincidentally the parts farthest from Boko Haram. Let's say the Mahgreb states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. These states are unstable by European standards, but they're way more stable than Niger and Chad. Plus they are sparsely populated and conveniently located for NATO military intervention. You could easily fly sorties from land bases in Italy and Spain.

  • by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @09:26AM (#51215017)
    One of the benefits of switching to renewables is to move the energy source away from muslim controlled countries. This clearly does not have that advantage.
  • Cost vs Benefit (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Beezlebub33 ( 1220368 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @09:26AM (#51215019)

    The Sahara has some benefits (right weather, low cost land), but probably has more costs than make it worthwhile. As the article says, there are significant political issues. They will require huge bribes, either directly to the politicians involved or to organizations that 'represent the people' (that don't really). When someone says that Africa must have a large share of the benefits, you know that means that lots of people need to be paid off.

    Sadly, it makes more sense to do it someplace with a better political system, better technical infrastructure, and closer to where the power will be used. The overall cost will turn out to be lower.

    • Not all of Africa is a wasteland. Unlike other power generation technologies, solar panels are a technology that can be assembled quite easily, not requiring much other than a basic infrastructure to have. Even if a region is corrupt, solar panels can be easily deployed in small villages. Start small, and from there, scale up.

      • This is probably the most sensible comment in this thread. Top-down, such a thing is not going to work. One would need to do it bottom-up. Showing e.g. a village in Mali or Niger that it, i.e. each and every resident, can make solid money from solar panels - it would be a great way to get things going. Only later on the need for at-scale integration and, especially, standardization, would come in.

  • "The technology is good. It's matured a lot in the last few years in terms of thermal storage........... The difficulties turn out to be mostly political:

    So, thermal storage is the only technical problem, and is now considered "matured". What are people smoking?

  • by Maxo-Texas ( 864189 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @09:28AM (#51215029)

    It will improve but if you were to put a billion dollars into solar panels, you would see a fifth the amount of solar actually built there which changes the cost/benefit equation substantially.

    Plus it becomes a massive target for attacks and blackmail over attacks. You could patrol and militarize the region but that would cost money and change the cost/benefit again.

    And... some of the dunes in the sahara are 75 stories tall and they drift around and could cover your facility if left unchecked.

    And finally, creating that much shade under the panels would probably change the microclimate. You might see changes under the panels- life taking a foothold in the shade. Not sure what unintended consequenes that might have.

  • You're not going to develop solar energy in the Sahara unless you have a very strong state involvement

    And that's why it won't work. Top-down revolutions have a difficult time taking hold. What works is empowering the individual to increase their livelihood in a way that provides a mutually beneficial relationship with the rest of society. Imposing economic change via dictate or "imminent domain" results in discord, perhaps more so in a place like saharan Africa.

  • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @09:29AM (#51215041) Homepage

    One big disadvantage of solar power is that it only works some of the time. The intermittent nature of both solar and wind is a serious problem. There's some amount that they help each other out, because in many locations the wind is strongest at night. Because of the intermittent nature of solar power, one cannot have large scale grids be completely solar without a lot of improvements in storage technology. Right now, battery technology is improving but it isn't where it needs to be. The best storage for most purposes right now is pumped hydroelectric https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pumped-storage_hydroelectricity [wikipedia.org] where one pumps water high up to a reserve when there is excess and then recovers it using a hydroelectric plant. This is more efficient than batteries. However, it requires specific geology to work well.

    The other big issue with this plan is an issue is efficient transmission. If you are putting a large fraction of the entire world's power in one area, you are going to need to have massive transmission lines. Transmission is a major loss of power already. There have been small scale projects to use superconductors for transmission lines which need to be kept very cold but have very high efficiency. Holbrook Substation in Long Island for example has a 600 meter long superconducting line https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holbrook_Superconductor_Project [wikipedia.org] but this is literally multiple orders of magnitude smaller than the distances needed for the proposal,some of which would likely need to go underwater, and there has never been a serious superconducting line run underwater.

    • by gtall ( 79522 )

      The article mentions that the Sahara is big, really big, so big you have no idea. The sun is usually out during daytime on a large part of it. Granted the large part moves a bit with the weather but at any one time, it is still a large part.

      • The Sahara is in 3.5 time zones. That means on average at least 1/4 of the Sahara is in daylight 15. hours/day. Which also means that all if the Sahara is dark on average 8.5 hours/day.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Both problems have been solved.

      They are actually talking about using solar thermal, which works 24 hours a day. It's not intermittent at all, you get solid power all the time, suitable for base load and dispatch as needed. Energy is stored as heat in molten salt as an integral part of the system.

      Long distance transmission (actually not that long distance when you look at it) was solved decades ago in Europe with high voltage DC lines. They only became practical when we developed high power electronic AC/DC

      • Solar thermal doesn't have as extreme intermittency problems as panels but it still has them. You see a power drop off as the night progresses, and cold spells with clouds can still lead to dips. This is why a lot of solar thermal actually includes direct heating elements being heated by burning fossil fuels http://www.volker-quaschning.de/articles/fundamentals2/index_e.php [volker-quaschning.de]. So if one of your goals is to get rid of fossil fuel use, then you cannot use solar thermal unless you are willing to have a substant

    • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

      A big disadvantage that is easily overcome. I used to live on 100% solar power in northern michigan. it is trivial to store what you can when the sun is out and use that storage until the next time the sun comes back. I had enough storage to run 14 days without having a single watt generated from my solar array.

  • Albedo (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Cigaes ( 714444 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @09:33AM (#51215057) Homepage

    I do not see the word “albedo” in this article. This is worrying. A lot of ecologist militant consider solar and wind energy as free energy just there for the taking. This is mostly true, but not entirely true.

    Covering a large area of land with solar panels (even assuming they are thermal panels, not too fragile and with not too much fabrication byproducts) would change the albedo of that area, i.e. the proportion of solar light that is reflected by the ground. This will in turn change the climate of the area, and if the area is large enough, change the climate of the whole planet by changing the trade winds. It is entirely possible that in this particular instance the change would be for the good, but it is very hard to predict.

    The same applies to large farms of wind turbines: they capture energy from the wind, and therefore weaken prevailing winds. Any large-scale localized change to elements of the climate has very complex consequences.

    • by Monoman ( 8745 )

      Exactly. What could go wrong? It is just a desert anyway. ;-)

  • by cirby ( 2599 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @09:34AM (#51215063)

    To get any good out of that much electrical power, you'd need a huge market to sell it to.

    Europe wouldn't be it - too far away, across the Mediterranean. The rest of Africa? Maybe once the political landscape settles down. No bets on that one, though.

    Sell electricity to the locals? The poor ones? In a region where oil prices are naturally low?

    Build a whole bunch of new industries to use it? You're in a chicken-and-the-egg situation there. Nobody would build the factories until the power was ready, and nobody is going to build the solar system until they know they can sell the power. Then, of course, you need to ship raw materials in, and train a whole generation of factory workers from scratch, in a relatively short period.

    And, as others have mentioned, solar plants in deserts have the "sand question" to deal with. Beside the whole issue of sandblasted glass, you have to keep them clean, which means, in general, water. Which is in incredibly short supply in the Sahara.

    Of course, the authors admit these issues, but handwave it with "state involvement," which means "we need to get governments to pay for this silly thing."

    • by DamonHD ( 794830 )

      HVDC interconnectors disagree with "too far away, across the Mediterranean".

      Rgds

      Damon

      • by cirby ( 2599 )

        HVDC interconnectors work great, but not through areas where there are a lot of violent people who like blowing up things that belong to Europeans.

        There are a few places they could install underwater HVDC lines, but it would be tough to find someone to fund the multiple billions of dollars in hardware it would take.

    • To get any good out of that much electrical power, you'd need a huge market to sell it to.

      Europe wouldn't be it - too far away, across the Mediterranean. The rest of Africa? Maybe once the political landscape settles down. No bets on that one, though.

      All of non-Scandinavian Europe is within 1500 miles of the Sahara. About 200 million Africans live farther away from the Sahara than that.

      And 1500 miles isn't that far. For one thing, we've got plenty of under sea cables spanning distances on the order of the width of the Mediteranean, be it the ~10 miles near Gibraltar or the ~100 miles from Tunisia to Sicily, or even the ~350 miles from Egypt to Turkey. For example, NorNed is a 360 mile undersea cable between Norway and the Netherlands. Of course, there w

  • Not unless you're also going to build the unprecedentedly massive infrastructure needed to distribute that power across the world, and pay for the huge army that will be needed to protect it from sabotage, invasion, or attack.

  • Sand dunes may be a huge issue in the Sahara. The darned dunes move around quite a bit and can bury a village rather quickly. Perhaps some solar panels could be dedicated to desalinization so that the deserts could be made to support vegetation sufficient to hold the sands in place.
  • The discussion in that article is about a technology that concentrates the solar energy to melt "salt" .this molten "salt" is then used to boil water to drive steam turbines. I know a bit out this. While in theory the water is condensed and resumed, it is the sent to cooling towers. The result of this is the need for a lot of really clean makeup water. I suspect the lack of water resources in a desert actually makes this recnically I feasible.
  • by stomv ( 80392 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @09:58AM (#51215171) Homepage

    At least not yet.

    The cost of transmission would be significant. The cost of construction would be non-trivial (get the panels form a nearby port to the site, get enough labor locally, supply chain all of their needs, etc). The reliability risk of putting so many eggs in one basket (both at the site and the transmission across the Mediterranean). And, concentrating the solar in one place results in unnecessarily diurnal production.

    Instead, put some panels in the Sahara, sure. But before that, keep putting panels in low-cost locations nearer to load. Rooftops. Sites containing waste (capped landfills, etc) or otherwise economically non-productive and ecologically not interesting. Roadsides. The installation cost per kW will be higher, because of a lack of economies of scale, higher labor cost, and additional equipment necessary. But, you get the value of saving on transmission and distribution construction costs and line losses, the smoothing and stretching of production due to geographic diversity, and both the energy security and the economic boost of doing work in your own country,

  • Why do we finally create a technology that is capable of drawing energy from the sun while being small enough to localise at the energy user and then insist on on building it in the middle of nowhere?

    I hate the idea of solar power plants. I love the idea of a panel on every roof.

  • Before we get too excited there are some pretty substantial environmental and political and technical issues to consider.
    1) What is the effect of large scale solar panel deployment on local atmosphere and climate conditions as well as ecosystems? That is a LOT of sunlight being reflected no matter what technology you use. I could see a "sea" of solar panels creating it's own climate and not necessarily a beneficial one.
    2) The governments in that part of the world aren't noted for their stability or integr

  • Avoid politics and choose the oceans.
  • I have always been curious about a solar project that large over desert and what negative impact, if any, it might directly have on the environment vs. the positive environmental impact of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. After all, we are talking about imposing a radical change on an environment that has been relative static for a few millennial. While sand of course reflects sunlight, solar panel reflect it right back up much more so. The consequence? I am not aware that anyone has a clue. Then there is
  • We are currently living at the mercy of arab nations and their ideology of hate. Changing to solar power in the sahara would _once again_ place us at the mercy of that same ideology. Let's build thorium plants instead, and finally develop fusion to production level.

    We spend what, a billion per year on fusion now? And 50 billion or something on agriculture (including such "vital" substances as wine, tobacco, etc.)? Let's turn that around for a few years, see how quickly fusion will become a reality...

    Also, I

    • Rail guns make your suggestion impractical. Nuclear plants can't be defended from intercontinental rail guns. Must use dispersed power source in future if the kinds of conflicts that worry you persist.
      • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

        It's far, far, far easier to use an ICBM than a rail gun in the way you talk of. or are you suggesting that we shoot THROUGH the earth... Because that would be bad for everyone involved.

  • by prefec2 ( 875483 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @10:40AM (#51215471)

    http://www.desertec.org/ [desertec.org] They tried to launch an initiative to build solar power in north Africa. However, they did not succeed so far. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

  • Stability... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bert64 ( 520050 ) <bert@@@slashdot...firenzee...com> on Thursday December 31, 2015 @10:44AM (#51215501) Homepage

    If you're going to build a massive solar installation, it makes sense to start with somewhere like nevada or arizona - politically stable, infrastructure already in place and plenty of nearby demand.

    • If you're going to build a massive solar installation, it makes sense to start with somewhere like nevada or arizona - politically stable, infrastructure already in place and plenty of nearby demand.

      The political stability in this case is not an asset. Much of the available land which would be suitable for this purpose is currently owned by the BLM, in our names. Problem is, if you want to put an oil well on it or do some clear-cutting of timber, you can get a permit no problem, but if you want to build a solar plant there, they tell you that you need to do a multiple-year environmental study to assess the impact.

  • I guess proponents of this don't know how tough blowing sand is on transparent materials. No matter, the anti-carbon industrial complex is predicated on planned obsolescence. Lots of people will be making lots of money on replacement parts for decades. Said rich people will then be lobbying heavily against better technology e.g. fusion.

  • Let's not and say we did.

  • by NostalgiaForInfinity ( 4001831 ) on Thursday December 31, 2015 @12:07PM (#51216143)

    If the question is "should Western governments spend massive amounts of money to put solar panels in the Sahara desert", the answer is "no".

    When it becomes economically feasible to do so (taking into account political risks and transportation costs), investors will start doing so.

    The only reason for Western governments to do this is because Western militaries could (and would) implicitly subsidize the necessary security arrangements. "Subsidize" here means that once our government had built massive solar farms there and we were energy depend on it, our military would do and spend whatever it takes to defend them.

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