Could the future of the Sahara Desert, one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, trade sand for lush vegetation?

A new study has found a solution that can improve the weather in the region: installing wind turbines and solar panels.

Wind And Solar Farms In Sahara

Yan Li, postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study, and his team chose Sahara because it is the largest desert in the world, and it is sensitive to land changes. The desert's location in Africa and proximity to Europe and the Middle East — all of which have high demands for energy — make it the prime model for the study.

The wind and solar farms that will be installed across the desert in the study would cover more than 9 million square kilometers. It would generate about 3 terawatts (wind) and 79 terawatts (solar) of electrical power, respectively, enough to cover the energy demand all over the world.

"In 2017, the global energy demand was only 18 terawatts, so this is obviously much more energy than is currently needed worldwide," stated Li.

Energy generated from the potential Saharan wind and solar farm could, therefore, help drastically reduce the carbon emission from fossil fuels.

Greener Sahara

The presence of wind turbines and solar panels in the region, however, could change local climate, but the researchers think that it will be for the good. On a large scale, they found that the wind and solar farm could trigger an increase of precipitation and growth of more vegetation across the arid landscape.

"The increase in rainfall and vegetation, combined with clean electricity as a result of solar and wind energy, could help agriculture, economic development and social well-being in the Sahara, Sahel, Middle East and other nearby regions," explained Safa Motesharrei, also an author of the study.

The Sahara Desert, the nearby Sahel, and the Middle East are some of the driest regions on Earth, where population and poverty also continue to grow. The increased precipitation and vegetation could supply food and water to local communities.

North Africa and the Middle East have already laid out plans for large-scale renewable energy projects. Saudi Arabia has invested $200 billion in the installation of solar power in the kingdom that is expected to generate up to 200 gigawatts of power. The country's leaders have already announced a partnership with the venture capital fund Softbank to complete the project by 2030.

The study authored by Li and Motesharrei was published in Science on Sept. 7.

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