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Debate: Desert solar energy

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Are deserts a suitable place for harnessing solar power on a large scale?

Background and context

To cover a significant share of current (and future) civilization energy needs by harnessing solar energy falling on the surface of the Earth, large areas of land are inevitably required. Since the dawn of solar power, the idea of harvesting the solar radiation on deserts has been prominent. Deserts offer plenty of space for solar power installations, some of them (notably Sahara) are very well insolated and most of the time without any cloud cover.

But are deserts really as good a place for large solar farms as they seem to be?

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Pro

  • Deserts receive a strong and steady insolation. The average insolation of e.g. central Sahara is around 2200 kWh per square meter per year, more than twice than that of central Europe. Moreover, there are no clouds above the desert most of the time, enabling a steady, predictable power generation.





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Con

  • Desert storm poses a fundamental threat to a solar power plant situated in a desert. No matter what technology is considered as a suitable candidate for large scale deployment in deserts (Photovoltaics, Solar Stirling, ...), the effect of a desert storm on such an installation would arguably be devastating.
  • Large scale solar farms would heat up the air in deserts. Currently, the yellowish sand on e.g. Sahara reflects substantial part of the incoming electromagnetic radiation back to space. All currently available technologies for harnessing solar energy, conceivable for large scale deployment, catches up as much of the incoming radiation as possible, but they are able to exploit only a fraction of it (due to low efficiency), transforming the rest to heat. If thousands of square kilometers were covered with e.g. photovoltaic panels, it would lead to a notable heat-up of the surrounding atmosphere with unknown consequences (strong winds, ...).
  • Most of the cities lies far from deserts. Since inhabitated places (where most of the energy is expected to be consumed) are mostly located far from deserts, a long range transmission network for the generated electricity - or elaborate synthesization, storage and transport of energy carriers - is necessary. This increases the construction and operation costs of a large scale desert solar farm.



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