For decades now, the international community has been discussing the viability of establishing a massive solar farm in the Sahara Desert. But now, according to information published in a BBC World Service Inquiry Report, we have our answer.
Not only is the project viable – though it will cost a multinational coalition close to $500 billion dollars to complete – but work is already underway in the Sahara. We may very well be ushering in a new age of solar power because of it.
There are challenges that needed to be overcome, however, and until new innovations are field tested and proven out the project remains in the developmental stage.
Encompassing almost a third of the African continent (close to 3.5 millions square miles), the Sahara is both one of the hottest AND one of the sunniest spots on the planet. Receiving close to 4000 hours of direct sunlight every single year, researchers believe we could literally solve the world’s energy problem just be setting up solar farms in the region.
The most efficient solar systems to capitalize on the energy raining down upon the Sahara are called “Concentrated Solar Power” systems – or CSP for short.
CSP units leverage parabolic troughs that literally bounce sunlight around inside of them to superheat an oil-like substance. This fluid is heated to nearly 400C, and the fluid is then used to heat seam in a run of the mill turbine generator.
While on its own the system is tremendously efficient, in application – especially in the Sahara – things weren’t quite working as intended. This is because of the major dust storms that kick up on a regular basis across the desert. Carrying (literally) tons of sand and depositing it in the troughs, this cuts down on the effectiveness of the solar capturing systems dramatically. The CSPs have to be cleaned out daily and even still there is a 2% (on average) degradation of the system. More than 40,000 liters of water are used every day to clean a single solar site, all of which has to be sourced in a desert or transported in – a tremendously expensive proposition.
A Moroccan led initiative is underway already to really prove out the viability of solar farms in the Sahara, but it’s not scheduled to go live until 2020. It’ll be exciting to see how things develop, and to see how new technology innovated in these harsh conditions can be co-opted for worldwide applications.