Solar panels in Chile’s Atacama desert. (credit: OPIC.gov)

Currently, the Earth’s inhabitants are, on average, consuming about 17.5TeraWatts of power. It’s estimated that an aggressive rollout of solar panels could generate at least 400TW, and possibly much, much more. But that would involve paving over a lot of the Earth’s surface with solar panels, in many cases covering relatively reflective sand with dark black hardware. Could this have its own effects on the climate?
The answer turns out to be remarkably complex. That’s in part because the panels don’t simply absorb the energy of the light—a fraction of it gets converted to electricity and shipped elsewhere. A team of US and Chinese scientists decided to account for all of this and found out that massive solar installations would cause changes in the climate, but the changes would be minor compared to what we’d see from continued greenhouse gas emissions.
The authors created a number of scenarios to tease out the influence of the panels, and they used climate models to examine the changes they drove. The first method involved covering most of the Earth’s deserts and urban areas with solar panels (this would, of course, lead to a ridiculous overproduction of electricity). In a second, the power harvested by these panels was then sent to urban areas and dissipated as heat. Finally, for a somewhat more realistic view, they simply covered most of the deserts of Egypt with panels.
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