LONDON, 19 September, 2018 – Wind and solar energy could deliver more than just renewable, low-carbon electricity: they could green the desert, increasing the Sahara’s rainfall and helping it to bloom.
A sufficiently large network of wind turbines and solar panels arrayed across the dusty wastes of North Africa could change the local climate in ways that could double rainfall, stimulate vegetation growth and set up a feedback loop that could go on increasing moisture in the world’s greatest desert region.
The array of wind turbines and solar panels so far remains hypothetical: to green the Sahara even a little, it would have to extend over 9 million square kilometres – an area bigger than Brazil.
The combined power output from this entirely imaginary infrastructure however would be enormous, at more than 80 terawatts of electrical power. Global consumption in 2017 was only 18 terawatts.
“Large-scale wind and solar farms can produce significant climate change on continental scales”
The study is an exercise in climate modelling: were investors to exploit the Sahara desert and the Sahel, what would all that hardware do to the land on which it stood?
Researchers have already established that wind turbines actually do change the prevailing winds: they convert high winds to a mix of electrical energy and lower wind speeds.
Similarly, light-absorbing photovoltaic cells on the ground would change the reflectivity of the surface on which they stood, and there is a demonstrable link between what climate scientists call albedo, and local climate.
Researchers chose to model the impact of renewable energy infrastructure on the Sahara because it is relatively empty, sunlit and windy. They matched the results with experiment.
Benefits for Sahel
They report in the journal Science that they found that wind farms mix warmer air from above, to raise minimum temperatures and create a feedback loop that drives greater evaporation, precipitation and plant growth.
Over the Sahara proper, rainfall increased by 150%, but since the desert is very dry the increase is relatively small. In the Sahel region to the south, a dry landscape of scrub, savannah and woodland, stretching from the Atlantic to the Nile, the simulated wind farms stepped up rainfall by 1.12 millimetres a day.
This is more than double the average observed in a control experiment, and what could amount to an extra 500mm a year could have “major ecological, environmental and societal impacts,” the scientists say.