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Here’s what would happen if the Sahara was covered in solar and wind farms

With swirling dust storms, barely any rain, and daytime temperatures reaching up to 104-degrees Fahrenheit, the Sahara desert is one of the world’s least hospitable environments. But the 3.6 million square mile stretch also represents a whole lot of untapped prime real estate — which a new study suggests could be used for housing the biggest solar and wind farms in the world. As it turns out, not only would covering the entire area in solar and wind farms more than meet the world’s energy demands, it would also transform the local climate. According to a team of international researchers, this could more than double local rainfall and result in a moderate “greening” of the region. What’s not to like?

“The Sahara is quite dry and its surface is covered with little vegetation,” Yan Li, a postdoctoral researcher in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, told Digital Trends. “The additional rainfall and vegetation would certainly provide a much-needed relief to this dry, bare desert.”

In their study, the researchers simulated the effects of covering the entire area with these solar and wind farms. They concluded that wind farms would generate, on average, around three terawatts of power and 79 terawatts through solar farms. This is significantly more than the 18 terawatts that made up the 2017 global energy demand.

This climate modeling study is one of the first times that researchers have modeled the effects of wind and solar installation, along with the ways that vegetation changes with heat and precipitation. The reasons for the changes in climate are complex, but they are related to effects like wind farms’ turbine blades pulling warm air down to the desert’s surface, along with solar farms increasing surface reflectiveness.

Of course, building this many solar and wind farms probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon. But it may not need to. As noted, doing this would produce far more energy than we currently require. It also wouldn’t take this major an intervention to get the beneficial effects on local precipitation and vegetation. When the researchers conducted experiments for farms of smaller scales, their results suggested that covering only the northwest quadrant of the Sahara would have almost the same climate benefits as covering the entire thing.

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Science.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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