Are solar parks in the Sahara making climate change worse?

At first glance, the idea sounds fantastic: if the entire Sahara were equipped with solar panels, the world’s energy needs could be covered four times. Researchers calculated that some time ago. The idea is also gaining traction because the area is largely inhospitable and uninhabited. So there would be no competition for space. The first plans in this direction are already being made in Morocco and Tunisia. While it makes sense in principle to use solar energy to generate green power in these countries, researchers in Sweden have been tackling a different question: what would happen if solar panels were not only implemented in individual, smaller projects, but would really be installed throughout the Sahara? In fact, the researchers here conclude that this would have a huge impact on the finely balanced global climate system.

The Sahara itself can become green again

The background: Solar panels are usually black and therefore clearly darker than sand. As a result, they absorb extra energy. However, this is only partially converted into electricity. The rest radiates into the environment as heat. If this only happens at the local level, it’s not a big problem. However, if larger areas are redesigned in this way, the consequences are correspondingly more pronounced. For the Sahara itself, the effects don’t seem so bad. Researchers have calculated that significant changes will occur when about twenty percent of the desert area is covered. Specifically, the extra heat would increase the temperature difference between the landmass and the ocean. Ultimately, this would cause more moist air to rise and come down as rain. More rain then creates more vegetation – which becomes a self-reinforcing permanent development. In other words, the Sahara could turn green.

The area around the solar panels is getting warm

This isn’t entirely absurd: Until about 5,000 years ago, today’s desert area was also covered in plants for similar, but naturally occurring reasons. However, the Swedish researchers have now extended the corresponding climate models to the whole world. This shows that if twenty percent of the Sahara were covered with solar panels, the temperature there would rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius. This warming would also be so strong that it would also spread worldwide. According to this, there would be an increase of 0.16 degrees Celsius worldwide. This doesn’t seem like much at first. However, the changes are not the same everywhere. The polar regions in particular would be hit hard. Ice melting could accelerate there, further warming the climate. In contrast, according to the researchers’ calculations, there would be more drought in the tropics. This would affect the rainforests, the green lungs of the planet.

Green electricity is needed on other continents

So it turns out that the global climate is a complex system. Large-scale human interventions sometimes bring unwanted changes. Planners should always keep this in mind. Conversely, this of course does not mean that you should no longer place solar panels in the desert. Because burning coal instead will also accelerate climate change. Equipping large areas of the Sahara with solar panels also presents other very practical difficulties. The green electricity is mainly needed in distant places in Europe, North America or Asia. In addition, gigantic lines would have to be laid. It would therefore make much more sense to rely primarily on local solutions, which are then complemented by international collaboration, rather than gigantic large-scale projects. Then only a small part of the Sahara would be needed for solar panels.