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Supermassive solar farms might actually have adverse affects on the climate

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In the future, humanity will source the wealth of its electricity from solar power plants that pave the desert with mirrors and harness the unbridled power of the sun. These solar power plants and other renewable energy options are supposedly the solution to the dangerous impact our power consumption habits have on the planet, but according to some new research, covering the planet in solar panels might also have a few adverse affects.

Around the world, humans regularly consume an average of about 17.5 TeraWatts of power. Even the most dire predictions of the way climate change will affect the planet suggest that, at best, the only thing we can do now is slow down our own demise. Renewable energy has been hailed as a sort of saving grace option, since switching to solar, wind, and hydro power sources will protect the environment from the greenhouse gas emissions that humans are so famously using to build (or destroy) our legacy on Earth.

But protecting the environment isn’t as simple as cutting out greenhouse gasses – at least, not anymore. A team of researchers from the US and China recently put together a series of potential scenarios to predict the state of the world’s climate after a hypothetical switch to full planetary solar power.

The scientists’ proposed scenarios included hyperbolic possibilities as well as to more realistic plans, so they were able to compare and scale their findings based on the terms of the simulation. By running algorithmic climate models over their potential Earth futures, the team was able to develop simulations of how solar at any scale will impact the Earth’s environment, for better or for worse.

In their most extreme simulation, all the deserts and urban areas of Earth were covered with solar panels. Aside from the obvious impracticality of this simulation, this particular projection would also produce an incredible excess of power, pouring 800 TeraWatts of electricity into the environment and raising global temperatures over all. In a more practical simulation, the scientists created a scenario where only the deserts of Egypt were covered with solar panels. The 60 TeraWatts of power created here is still in extreme excess, but the net effect of this simulation on the environment was negligible but still positive, with global cooling rates over all at about 0.04 degrees.

The complicated range of environmental effects from a solar-powered planet scales in direct correlation with the amount of area we cover, among other factors related to the sheer volume of solar power panels around the world. In the extreme example of a world mostly covered with solar power, climate changes in the desert regions where panels are installed would have widespread environmental effects. Although greenhouse gases and carbon emissions would be reduced, deserts covered in solar panels would cool down surrounding regions by up to 2 degrees Celsius. Although the ridiculous amount of energy pouring into populated regions heats up some of this cooling effect to level out the net impact, the changes in wind and precipitation around the world are understood to be triggers for other kinds of inclement weather disasters and dangerous climate situations.

Even in the most extreme simulation from this research, a world powered by renewable energy would be better off than the one we’re currently destroying with greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, this research comes from two of the world’s most notable contributors to global climate change: the US and China. It may be true after all that the best we can to protect Earth’s environment is to slow down the damage.

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Chloe Olewitz
Chloe is a writer from New York with a passion for technology, travel, and playing devil's advocate. You can find out more…
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