Installations of large-scale wind and solar farms don't just have the power to supply the world with an immense amount of energy, they have the power to actually change climates on massive scales, potentially for the better. A new climate-modeling study has found that wind and solar plants throughout the Sahara desert could significantly increase precipitation across the region and increase vegetation, reports Phys.org.
The Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world, and it's growing. It covers a massive swath of northern Africa, making much of the terrain uninhabitable. So any increase in precipitation here would likely be a good thing, study authors speculated.
The study is among the first to model the climate effects of wind and solar installations while also considering the effects on vegetation growth.
"Previous modeling studies have shown that large-scale wind and solar farms can produce significant climate change at continental scales," said lead author Yan Li.
An opportunity in the sands?
There are few places on Earth more ideal for large-scale wind and solar installations than the Sahara. For one, there's plenty of sunlight and plenty of wind generated over the sandy plains. It's also in close proximity to Europe and the Middle East, which have growing energy demands. Furthermore, wind and solar installations that covered roughly 9 million kilometers of this barren terrain could supply about 3 terawatts and 79 terawatts of electricity respectively. That would meet global energy demands several times over.
"In 2017, the global energy demand was only 18 terawatts, so this is obviously much more energy than is currently needed worldwide," said Li.
This study used these projections to model how such large installations would effect the region's climate and vegetation. It was found that temperatures would increase — which might sound grueling in the desert — but this would also raise humidity levels and double the amount of precipitation. That's a fair tradeoff, as this parched landscape could green significantly with even modest increases in rainfall.
"We found that the large-scale installation of solar and wind farms can bring more rainfall and promote vegetation growth in these regions," explained Eugenia Kalnay, co-author on the study. "The rainfall increase is a consequence of complex land-atmosphere interactions that occur because solar panels and wind turbines create rougher and darker land surfaces."
So it's a win-win. Massive amounts of clean energy, plus a more habitable landscape (which means more viable agricultural and economic development), plus more greenery over a large area that could become a significant carbon sink.
It's remarkable to think that instead of burning fossil fuels and creating catastrophic climate change, which involves increased desertification, that we could instead use clean energy to produce positive climate change and transform a desert into a habitable oasis.