May 03, 2019 10:09 PM EDT

Sahara Desert
(Photo : Greg Gulik) Sahara Desert

Those who have visited the Sahara Desert is struck by how vast, sunny and hot it is and just how clear everything can be. There is little vegetation and it is said that the Saharan sun is powerful enough to provide significant solar energy on Earth.

Statistically speaking, if Sahara Desert is a country it would be the fifth biggest in the whole world. It is larger than Brazil and it is a bit smaller than the United States and China. Each square meter gets between 2,000 and 3,000 kilowatt hours of solar energy every year, according to NASA. Sahara covers 9m km2, that is the total energy available, but that is only if every inch of the desert uses every single sun energy, then it will be more than 22 billion gigawatt hours every year.

This estimation means that a hypothetical solar farm that will cover the entire Sahara Desert would produce at least 2,000 times more energy than the largest power stations could in the world, as they only generate 100,000 GWh a year. The output of this hypothetical solar system is equivalent to 36 billion barrels of oil per day, that is five barrels a day per person. In this situation, the Sahara Desert could produce more than 7,000 times the electricity that is required in Europe with little to no carbon emissions.

Over the past few years, scientists have looked at how a solar system in a desert could help meet the increasing local energy demand and power Europe as well, and how this might work in the long run. There have been academic insights made to provide plans for this project. The closest attempt was Desertec, a project that was announced in 2009 that needed a lot of funding from numerous banks and energy firms before collapsing after investors pulled out after five years. Projects like these are held back by different commercial, political and social factors, including the lack of fast development in the region.

There were recent proposals for this project, the TuNur project in Tunisia which aims to give power to more than 2m European homes, and the Noor Complex Solar Power Plant located in Morocco which also aims to provide energy to Europe.

Just a small part of the whole Sahara Desert is enough to produce energy that could support an entire continent. As the solar technology improves through time, it will get cheaper and it will be more efficient. The Sahara Desert may be inhospitable for animals and most plants, but it could provide sustainable energy to people across North Africa.

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