solar farm
While it initially sounds like a good idea, building a solar farm on the Sahara is, ironically, terrible for the Earth. Picture for illustrative purposes. Image Credit: Unsplash/Antonio Garcia

Think about the vast Sahara Desert, which lies on the equator, with the sun beating down on it all through the year. Why don’t we cover it in solar panels so we can power the entire planet?

Click start to play today’s Spell It, where we explore an interesting way to ‘improve’ our energy consumption.

According to US-based battery manufacturing company Axion Power, it would take 51.4 billion 350W solar panels to generate enough energy to power the world. What does that look like in terms of space? It’s roughly about 186,080 square kilometres, which might sound like a lot, but is only about twice the size of the UAE.

If you’d attempt to install those solar panels in the Sahara Desert, it would only take up a mere 3.25 per cent of it, since the desert is a whopping 5.79 million square kilometres in size. Moreover, there would be zero animal and human displacement, and absolutely no deforestation involved.

Sounds great, right? In theory, it’s a fantastic idea, but it comes with a lot of strings attached. For one, the costs involved are astronomical. According to British author Will Lockett, who wrote the 2023 book, 50 Ways to Save the World, a solar farm of this enormous size and scope would cost roughly $514 trillion (Dh1.8 quadrillion) – that’s 23 times the size of the entire US economy.

The next issue arises with the storage and transport of energy. Each solar panel would need 4.2kWh of battery storage, which would increase each panel’s cost by approximately $900 (Dh3,305). That’s on top of Lockett’s cost estimate for the project!

Then, logistically, moving all of that power out of the Sahara would be a nightmare. According to a report in US-based business magazine Forbes, exporting the solar energy to Europe, for instance, would require power lines of 805 to 3,220km in some cases – a massive undertaking. Also, currently, the upper limit of power line loss – something that commonly happens between the transmission and distribution process – is about four per cent. The Sahara solar farm’s power loss could rack up to between 10 and 22 per cent, so it makes little sense for efficient long-distance transmission.

But perhaps the biggest impact is that solar panels in the Sahara could change weather patterns all around the world. Collecting sunlight and turning it into electricity would cause the desert to cool down, eventually allowing rain to return to the area. Once rain arrives, plants start to grow, creating a knock-on effect, which would gradually turn the desert green.

So, what’s wrong with more greenery? According to a February 2015 report by the US-based space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is fertilised by dust from the Sahara, which blows over the Atlantic. Its nutrient-rich sand is responsible for enormous algae blooms, which in turn, produce much of the Earth’s oxygen. The Sahara’s heat also drives rainfall, buffeted by Atlantic winds, to the Amazon. So, if the Sahara were no longer a desert, it would cause the Amazon rainforest – the lungs of the planet – to collapse.

Moreover, with the greening of the desert, more of the world would become wetter, causing water vapour to build up and generate more clouds. According to the American Chemical Society, water vapour accounts for about 60 per cent of the Earth’s greenhouse warming effect. More clouds mean more trapping of heat, and an even warmer planet.

While it initially sounds like a good idea, building a solar farm on the Sahara is, ironically, terrible for the Earth. What could work, however, is incorporating more solar powered systems in urban spaces around the world. If anything, the Sahara solar farm proves that it’s possible to power the entire Earth with energy from the sun. According to Lockett, just converting 20 per cent of urban areas around the world will allow us to fully power ourselves.

Now, that sounds like a great idea.

What do you think? Play today’s Spell It and tell us at