Massive solar and wind farms could bring vegetation back to the Sahara – and have other unforeseen consequences

A solar plant in Morocco, on the edge of the Sahara desert. Image: Getty.

Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy is an important and necessary step towards averting climate change. However, in our efforts to go green, we also need to be mindful of other consequences, both intended and unintended – and that includes how a mass deployment of renewable technology might affect its surrounding climate.

What if the Sahara desert was turned into a giant solar and wind farm, for instance? This is the topic of new research published in the journal Science by Yan Li and colleagues. They found that all those hypothetical wind turbines and solar panels would make their immediate surroundings both warmer and rainier, and could turn parts of the Sahara green for the first time in at least 4,500 years.

The scientists behind the research looked at the maximum amount of solar and wind energy that could be generated in the Sahara desert and the transition region to its south, the Sahel. The two regions were picked as they are relatively plausible sites for such an enormous roll-out of renewable energy, being fairly near to substantial demand from Europe and the Middle East, while having limited other demands on the land. Both have substantial potential resources of wind and solar energy. Li and colleagues also suggest that the Sahel, in particular, could also benefit from economic development and more energy for desalination, providing water for cities and agriculture.

Africa has the greatest solar resource of any continent – by far. Image: SolarGIS/creative commons.

As the two regions are so large, the solar and wind farms that were simulated in this study are the size of entire countries – 38 times larger than the UK. They would be vastly bigger than any existing solar and wind farms, and could provide up to four times as much energy as is currently consumed globally.

This would prompt quite significant changes in the local environment – massive wind farms would raise temperatures by around 2 degrees for instance, similar to the amount of global warming we are concerned about. Solar would cause a smaller temperature change, around 1 degrees.


Precipitation increases of 0.25 mm per day associated with wind farms sound more modest, yet this would be almost double the previous amount of rainfall. Again, the effect associated with solar parks was smaller – an increase of 0.13 mm/day – but still significant when added up over a year.

Why turbines and panels mean warmth and rain

Wind farms largely cause temperature increases because their turbine blades bring warmer air down to the surface, especially at night. This has been observed in field studies and using remote sensing. They have also been shown to increase moisture in the air.

Solar panels mean more solar radiation is absorbed and less of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space. This causes the land surface to warm up. Several studies have shown this, including one which showed that the effect of warming caused by fossil fuels, via carbon emissions, was 30 times greater than the warming caused by solar photovoltaics absorbing more solar radiation. However, temperature effects may vary within the solar park and with season.

In the Sahara simulation, extra rainfall happens because wind turbines represent an obstacle to free-flowing air, slowing it down and reducing the effect of the Earth spinning on air flow. This lowers the air pressure, and the difference in pressure between the Sahara and surrounding areas causes wind to flow there. When the air meets, or converges, in the Sahara it has nowhere else to go but up. As the air rises, water vapour in it condenses and rain drops form.

For solar, the process is slightly different: warmer air, heated by the panels, simply rises. However, this also promotes low pressure, causing air to flow there, converge and rise.

Large-scale wind and solar would mean more new rain in some areas than others. Image: Eviatar Bach/creative commons.

More rainfall also means more vegetation. This increases surface roughness, as with wind turbines, and causes more solar radiation to be absorbed, as with solar panels. This reinforcing cycle is known as a “climate feedback” and incorporating these vegetation feedbacks is a novel aspect of the research by Li and colleagues.

Time to make it a reality?

Not quite. Decisions aren’t made in response to environmental impacts alone – if this was the case we’d have already ditched fossil fuels. It’s certainly true that developing a mega renewable energy site across the Sahara and the Sahel would be a game-changer, but there are lots of other factors to consider first.

These areas may be sparsely populated but people do live there, their livelihoods are there, and the landscapes are of cultural value to them. Can the land really be “grabbed” to supply energy to Europe and the Middle East?


Coherent and stable energy policies are challenging enough within an individual nation, let alone between nations with all the potential political implications and energy security issues this implies. Though mass amounts of cheap Saharan energy sounds like a great thing, it is not clear it would be a secure enough investment for the economics to add up.

It’s also hard to tell what this would mean for desertification, which is caused by poor land management, such as overgrazing, as well as by the climate. The changes to rainfall looked at in this study are regional, not global, and once the wind and solar farms were taken away their effects would disappear and the land could revert back to its previous state.

Overall, this is an interesting and important piece of research, highlighting the need to be mindful of unintended consequences, be these positive or negative, of the energy transition. Integrating these findings with other social, economic, environmental and technical considerations is essential to ensure we don’t leap from the frying pan into the fire.

The Conversation

Alona Armstrong, Senior lecturer, Lancaster University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.