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Solar Energy - Could we alter the Climate?

Recently, I have been looking at renewable energy  applications, especially solar energy.  I wondered what is the cost of applying solutions such as those large solar power farms ? Does it affect the environment, does it alter the climate? I know it sounds strange but like all physical matters, there is always a cost of doing business.

Solar energy which is the most common of the renewable space is now the norm when talking about non fossil fuel applications.  Wind power generation is the next biggest and is also very significant part of the renewable space especially in Europe. Has anyone thought about the possibility of all these changes to the natural equilibrium with habitat changes and land uses that may affect the  ecosystem?  Could we alter the climate that we are trying to save?

The Renewable Infrastructure.

Currently we have the following items that help us become green,

  1. Solar – solar farms are today growing rapidly and they are growing larger in size. Some of these farms can power up to 200,000 homes.

  2. Wind – Wind farms are now slowlly taking a larger role however, I do think that the visual impact and thier inefficiency may limit their purpose in the future.

  3. Hydro – This is old technology and it has a great impact on the environment and society. However, it si better than buring coal, or is it?

  4. Wave – A very new technology and the real impact is still unknown.

There is a fifth component to that list which I consider is green but the general public would not consider it as a green alternative.  That fifth element is Nuclear.   In 2009,  I found information showing that nuclear power has less carbon impact than any know “green” alternative power generation.  However, at the 2019 International Business Conferrence, I heard a talk mentioned that that is no longer the case.  There is now evedecnce that solar power is getting more efficent and cheaper which is why the use of solar power is growing in popularity.

Footprint – Significant or Not ?

According to a report entitled “Understanding future emissions from low-carbon power systems by integration of life-cycle assessment and integrated energy modelling”, which I found on www.nature.com,  the conclusion was that it is not significant unless you talking about Hydro… 🙂

We find that cumulative emissions attributable to upscaling low-carbon power other than hydropower are small compared with direct sectoral fossil fuel emissions and the total carbon budget. Fully considering life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions has only modest effects on the scale and structure of power production in cost-optimal mitigation scenarios.

The study took into consideration emmissions including from manufacture, construction and fuel supply.  The study also included nuclear energy.  It is obvious that fossil fuels are the main bad energy source, but comparatively, the use of Hydro and Bioenergy are also considered bad.

For a climate protection scenario, we project life-cycle emissions from fossil fuel carbon capture and sequestration plants of 78–110gCO2eq kWh−1, compared with 3.5–12gCO2eq kWh−1 for nuclear, wind and solar power for 2050. Life-cycle emissions from hydropower and bioenergy are substantial (∼ 100 gCO2eq kWh−1), but highly uncertain.

What surprised me was the significant differentce between, nuclear,wind and solar and that of hydropower and bioenergy.

It one thing to say the economic efficientcy of the different power generation types, but I do think that the impact will be on the footprint.

The argument against not having a mine operation becasue it harms the environment when you look at farming is one that I find facinating.  The footprint of a typical mining operation makes is insignificant when compared to farming.  This is the same when you look at solar or wind farms.  The lack of

Carbon Debt?

When people talk about the carbon debt between types of renewable energy, I think the article above see to be a good answer.

However, I do feel that people need to look at the longer term ramification of having these large solar and wind farms.  The visual environmental impact needs to be considered.  Its fine if you have a Sahara desert or a Gobi desert to put these panels.  I would think that the large area that is required for these solar farms will cause damage to flora and fauna.

In regards to wind energy, some of the wind turbines are huge.  According to a report by CNBC, GE is building a turbine that is over 260m tall.  It will have a capacity of 12 megawatts and 107m blades.  According to GE, they will spend over USD4ooM developing and building over the next 5 years.  The turbine will produce over 65GWh annually. That will power about 16,000 European households

An article in www.sciencing.com published some very interesting facts,

For example, environmental reports underestimated the number of desert tortoises that would be displaced by the Ivanpah Solar Generating System in California’s Mojave Desert. The same solar farm also came under scrutiny when an increasing number of bird deaths were reported on its premises. Many of their wings had been melted or burned off by heat from the solar farm’s mirrors.

Being a geologist, we are always made to be the anti-environmentalist. When in fact,we are more protective of the environment.  I have always thought that a solar farm is like tree logging, or land farming.  You need to clear lots of land.  We all know that the ecosystem is one that works hand in hand with all species that exist, so if you take one out, you are going to have an issue.  A bit like losing an arm, or a kidney or a liver ?  Sounds all very environmentall difficult but even a geologist thinks there must be an alternative :-).

I am not saying that we dont have these alternative energy sources but what I am saying is that maybe having solar farms is very primitive? Should we be looking at better ways to use these solutions.

Clean energy changing Climate

This leads to the most interesting article I have read which glued together my pontification over this subject.  The fact that a wind or solar farm could actually change the climate.

The bad would be what we have just discussed, which is the habitat and wildlife issue.  But there is research going on now that is trying to see if having a solar farm would trigger climate change.  They are trying to discover if solar and wind farms may alter the movement of air to a degree that it could create more moisture and allow vegetation to grow where it was not possible.  The study is made over the Sahara desert.

In principle, this area would be ideally placed to house such a project, as it is sparsely populated and well placed to supply the growing energy demands of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

The researchers found that, when installed on a large enough scale, both wind and solar infrastructure would trigger feedback loops that bring more rainfall and promote the growth of vegetation in the desert.

In a region that is already feeling the effects of global warming as the Sahara desert creeps further into the fertile lands bordering it, the scientists say the net effect would be surprisingly positive.

If readers think that this is something out of Star Trek movie, the attraction of turning the Sahara desert from a non productive patch of dirt into a ocean of solar panels or wind turbines will happen. It is in breed in the human species to be greedy to make that happen.  If that was to happen, the result of more rain, more green will happen. What we dont know is if that is a good thing or a bad thing.  No doubt, the positives is that this ocean of solar and wind energy will create so much cheap and useful power to the region. It will change the whole region to productivity that the world will need to feed ourselves.

There is a few articles on the reasons why wind and solar farms can bring significant climates changes to the Sahara desert.  The one that I found had a clear explanation was that in www.theconversation.com.

The Future?

As technology becomes smarter and cheaper, there are now a series of panels that are made to line buildings in the big cities.  They are classed as smart windows which transfer the sunlight that shines on them to energy.  A company in Australia called ClearVue (ASX:CPV) has come up with a patented advanced glazing technology that sits within an activated interlayer sandwiched between two panes of glass.  This kind of stuff makes good sense and if commercialised, it will be a big money spinner.

Through the combination of special compound materials, the interlayer prevents heat and unwanted solar radiation (UV or Infrared) from penetrating the glass pane. This energy is then redirected to the edge of the glass for controlled distribution and harvesting through conventional PV solar cells, whilst allowing the natural visible wavelength light to pass through largely unaltered. — ClearVue Limited (ASX:CPV)

There is a video on their website that gives a good explanation of the technology.

Another form of smart windows is one that is made of perovskites. Windows with this material allow windows to be clear on cold days but turns them dark in the hot summer sun.  Some groups have mentioned that they can harvest power like solar cells from the windows.

Perovskites are materials made of a mix of elements with a particular crystalline structure, and solar cells made from them are nearly as efficient at converting sunlight to electricity as state-of-the-art silicon solar panels: The best ones convert more than 22 of the energy in sunlight to electricity, compared with 25 for silicon. By changing the perovskites’ elemental components, researchers can also control their transparency. What’s more, the starting materials for perovskites are far cheaper than existing solar cells. — www.sciencemag.org

Recently, I have also been working on a wave technology concept.  It is still in the early stage of commercialisation testing but I can still see a pretty big footprint too.  It is smaller than the ones I have seen so at least that is working in the right direction.  I have no idea what the solution is but I am sure there are very smart people out there that will have an answer.


The journey to have a greener energy solution is something that I am in favour.  The reality is that the use fossil fuel will be around for probably two more generations and maybe more.  In my opinion, the uptake of renewable energy will only accelerate if ggovernmentsforce the population to do adopt the changes. For example, in UK and I suppose most of the advanced countries in Europe,  this is very evident and I can see some major changes.

However, the point I am trying to highlight is that the human race is damn scared of being extinct.  The rush to be green is really driven by the material greed and not the need to be morally green.  History tells us that humans will eventually make a real mess of it because our so called “greenness” is rushed because we want the green bills.  That's why we continually look back in history and see all the things that we could or should have done better.


All photos ar sourced from Bing.


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