Solar Panels in the Sahara Desert: How Africa can electrify the world

Solar energy is the energy from sunlight and it is free but solar power requires a relatively small investment. It provides reliable source of energy with the most potential to produce inexhaustible power supply. The sunlight or solar radiation we see and feel is only a tiny aspect of light. The whole range of light that exists is known as the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic energy exists in different forms that can be tapped using different equipment like photovoltaic (PV) solar panels.

The increased demand for renewable energy has driven improvements in solar technology and photovoltaic systems resulting in more efficient and cheaper solar panels. The immense power of the sun can be harnessed for humanity to truly enjoy the benefit of renewable energy. But how can this really be achieved in an economically efficient manner? Off-grid medium commercial and residential solar projects, large solar farms and industrial solar projects like the Ouarzazate Solar Power Station in Morocco demonstrate the possibility.

What is Electromagnetic Energy?

Sunlight is an integrated source of different forms of energy that can be split into individual components and converted into various forms of renewable energy. This light energy is used to power radios, TVs, remote controls, microwave oven, smartphones to send text messages, etc. The electromagnetic spectrum covers the entire range of light radiation from visible to invisible including radio waves, microwaves, x-rays and gamma rays.

Light is propagated like a wave of alternating electric and magnetic fields. The two fundamental properties of light are frequency (measured in Hertz, which is a count of the number of incidence of waves) and wavelength (measure of distance of one wave to another at their peak). They are inversely related such that when frequency is high, wavelength is small; and vice versa. Solar energy becomes clearer when light is split using a prism to see the different wavelengths. NASA uses the full range of the electromagnetic spectrum to study the Earth, the solar system, and the universe beyond.

How much solar energy hits the earth?

To demonstrate the immense power of the sun and emphasise the fact that solar power is the largest exploitable renewable energy resource, most energy literature point out that the earth gets more solar energy in 1 hour than the whole world can consume in one year. Per square meter (1m2) of the earth's surface at peak time, this amounts to about 1050 watts (circa 1kW/m² or 1MW/km²) every hour. I have to wonder whether global warming would be an issue today had similar investments in carbon energy been made in solar energy since the explosion of crude oil.  
In case you are wondering what this really means, 1m2 is a surface area with all four sides equal to 1 meter. To give you a quick mental picture, 1 meter equals 100 centimetres (cm). A typical table ruler is normally about 30 cm. Three of them will give you 90 cm and you just need to add 10cm to get 1 metre. If you measure out a square shape on the ground with each side measuring 1 meter, you have 1m2 surface area.

The surface area of the Sahara desert in Africa is 9.2 million km². The area is less cloudy and with strong solar contact. It will therefore produce significantly higher electricity per square meter than indicated above. And even if not, the area can still potentially produce about 9.66 terawatts (TW) of solar electricity per hour. If we assume conservative optimal solar power of just 5 hours daily, that's about 48.3 TWh daily. Total world energy consumption in 2016 was about 21,191 TWh. That’s a daily average of circa 58,058 gigawatt hours (GWh), or about 0.12% of the electricity that can conveniently be produced in the Sahara. This shows that the Sahara desert can be farmed to supply enough solar power to electrify the whole world.

We don’t need to cover all of the Sahara desert with solar panels. The environmental, social and sustainability cost implications relative to the ecosystem will be unbearable. If we focus on optical conditions in the Sahara desert, with due consideration of location, orientation, tilt, insolation, wind, clarity of the solar photovoltaic panels and other factors, the optimal electricity that can be produced could be about 8.3 kWh/m² daily, equivalent to 8.3MWh/km² daily. This implies that about 250,000 km² or about 2.7% of the Sahara desert would be required to produce over 2.075 TWh of electricity daily. Africa’s electricity consumption in 2016 was 638 TWh, that’s a daily average of about 1.748 TWh. Solar power from just 2.7% of the Sahara desert can conveniently supply more electricity than Africa currently consumes.

Solar Projects in Africa - The Ouarzazate Solar Power Station example

In Morocco, the Ouarzazate Solar Power Station (OSPS), also called Noor Power Station is said to be the largest solar power project in the world.  It is expected to cost $9 billion on completion and generate 500 - 580 MW of electricity. The beauty of this project is that it also captures heat energy from the sun in the form of molten salt, for further production into electricity at night. It was conceived as a colossal African solar farm project to power Europe with power line cables via the Strait of Gibraltar. 

The need to Light Up Africa has never been greater. At HetoGrowCapital we believe in quick deployment of high impact solar technology for Africa. Solar projects can be set up to bypass the dearth of infrastructure with off-grid solar power projects set out like a distributed network system. The African Development Bank and the African Union should adopt and promote a policy of solar electrification for Africa. Solar power projects like the OSPS can be spread across the Namib and the Kalahari deserts in order to optimise electricity delivery management across the continent. To further put this in perspective, let us examine a new view on energy for Africa.

Funding Solar Power Projects to Light Up Africa

According to aircraftcompare, the Northrop B-2 Spirit, also known as the Stealth Bomber costs USD 939m. The C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft costs USD 218m. About 8 pairs will fund the Ouarzazate Solar Power Station. This is probably over simplifying my point but the aim here is to demonstrate that it is possible to achieve solar power sufficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

Worldwide military spending was USD1.69 trillion in 2016. This will fund 178 OSPS similar projects. And Africa’s military spending was US$37.9 billion in 2016 . Its difficult to see how this was of benefit to Africans but it is obvious the amount can fund at least 4 Solar Power Stations similar to OSPS, and generate additional 5.88 TWh of electricity per year for Africans to enjoy. Imagine the number of jobs this will create and the overall creativity and economic development it will inspire. The current positive vibe about Africa's booming economies is encouraging. The drive to electrify Africa with solar energy will deepen economic growth. Key priorities and policies need to be re-evaluated.

Undoubtedly, Africa has abundant exposure to the sun over a vast expanse of land and water with large areas receiving a healthy dose every day of the year. Africa is the world's second-largest continent at about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands. It covers six percent of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4 percent of the total land area. It is also the second-most-populous continent with about 1.2bn people spread over 54 countries. To put all of that that into perspective, you can fit the USA, Argentina, India, Western Europe, and china into Africa; and still have more room left for Eastern Europe and Japan. See more at Africa is not a country.

Build Micro African Businesses - the new solar-preneurs
A BBC news story by Tom Jackson in Cape Town, South Africa highlighted how employment can be created as "a new breed of entrepreneurs" bring solar power to millions in Africa. He said “a new breed of "solar-preneurs" is emerging, increasing access to power and generating revenues at the same time.” He added that similar "business models in Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania allow individuals to run their own solar income generating businesses through a lease or franchise agreement. They then offer electricity services to their communities through pay-as-you-go solar charging mobile kiosks". It is easy to see how these can enhance creativity as small businesses provide services such as charging mobile electronic products and wi-fi hotspots that increase internet connectivity.

Solar power development is well established in Russia with regional sun traps. And they have plans to increase production of renewable energy. China, Europe, the USA and India are all investing heavily in renewable energy with solar power being a key policy objective. The African Union and the African Development Bank Group need to adopt a strategic policy to aggressively promote the use of solar power in Africa. National governments in Africa also need to act quickly.

Mobile Solar Technology

High impact application is exemplified by the proliferation of mobile solar power bank phone chargers. They are typically designed to recharge mobile phones and up to 5V devices with USB cables. And provide safe and sustainable bright LED light after charging with either electricity or sunlight. Solar power banks are supplemented by the embedded solar panel during the day. This provides solar support and emergency power back up as it recharges the power bank on exposure to the sun. They are packaged in portable units that can be used to charge other mobile gadgets up to 5 volts like cameras and laptops especially when outdoors, on a day out, camping or just where there is no electricity.

Solar energy is not the only solution. Africa will need to pursue the right mix based on the resources the continent is endowed with including other sources of renewable energy alternatives like wind, wave, geothermal, hydroelectric and bio-energy. However there can be no gainsaying the fact that solar power can have an immediate positive impact.

Imagine how much better things will be if Africa becomes sufficiently electrified. Given current economic growth in African countries despite obvious difficulties, electricity from solar energy can easily create great business opportunities, jobs, drive development, technology, innovation and ensure unparallelled economic growth at levels never seen previously anywhere in the world. Solar energy is free and Africa is abundantly endowed. It must be given due attention in Africa.

Posted by @EHOkoli. Also connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn


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