When you think of a desert, you might think of a dry, barren landscape with tumbleweeds blowing around amidst the occasional cactus. I don’t give too much thought to deserts, but I know I’m not clambering to visit one – they may be hot, but they’re not “hotspots,” right?
Well, solar power may be able to change that image. Morocco is in the midst of building the world’s largest concentrated solar plant on its desert land in Ourzazate. By the time it is completed, the four linked plants will occupy a space as large as the capital city of Rabat and generate enough electricity to power 1 million homes. But, the potential for desert solar is even greater – German physicist Gerhard Knies calculated that the world’s deserts receive enough sunshine in a few hours to meet the entire world’s power needs for a whole year! Of course, that’s if we can capture and convert that solar power to electricity and transport it to consumers.
Not only would a greater number of desert solar plants be beneficial for the environment (more renewable energy means less demand for polluting fossil fuels), but they could increase economic prosperity in countries that have typically had lower levels of wealth. Many of these desert countries have failed to thrive economically because of a scarcity of natural resources (a notable exception being the United Arab Emirates, where abundant reserves of oil have enabled the desert-covered cluster of countries to thrive). A report from Stanford asserts that there is a “goldilocks zone in global temperature at which humans are good at producing stuff,” and that countries with average temperatures above that “goldilocks” level suffer economically because of reduced productivity (see the full report here).
But, with solar technology continuing to improve and gain in global popularity (GlobalData estimates that total global installed solar PV capacity grew by over 50% from 2006 to 2014), desert countries may finally be able to monetize a natural resource that they have in abundance – sunshine. The keys will be raising the capital to build the plants and ensuring that excess power generated can be exported to other countries.
Think what these solar plants could truly mean for development in these countries – building a solar farm is a capital investment capable of driving a long-term increase in wealth, which could in turn improve access to healthcare, education, and other essential resources that are necessary for country development.
I am by no means a development expert, but I think desert solar has the potential for huge benefits worldwide. I’d love to see international development organizations and countries around the world consider it as a form of foreign aid and investment.