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Why don’t we cover the desert with solar panels? - Dan Kwartler


19,960 Questions Answered

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Stretching over roughly nine million square kilometers and with sands reaching temperatures of up to 80° Celsius, the Sahara Desert receives about 22 million terawatt hours of energy from the Sun every year. That’s well over 100 times more energy than humanity consumes annually. So, could covering the desert with solar panels solve our energy problems? Dan Kwartler digs into the possibility.

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Recent developments in solar technology may resolve some of the issues presented by traditional panels. Most panels are made from crystalline silicon single-junction cells, which can reach a maximum theoretical energy conversion efficiency of about 33% and laboratory efficiencies of over 25%. Nevertheless, researchers continue to look for more effective ways to harness solar energy. Multi-junction cells made of six different semiconducting materials enable the cell to absorb light at a wider range of wavelengths, running at a 47% efficiency limit. However, multi-junction solar cells aren’t widely used outside of satellite and aerospace engineering due to their relatively high manufacturing costs. The technology has a long way to go before it can be cheaply deployed across the planet, though concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) systems, which use lenses and mirrors to focus light, could provide some solutions.

Research has also centered around perovskite solar cells, which now have a conversion efficiency of over 25% (about what we see from crystalline silicon cells), compared to reports of only 3% in 2006. Moreover, perovskite solar cells offer relatively low production costs when compared to multi-junction solar cells, making them more affordable on an industrial scale. These cells can be applied in the form a thin solution—essentially painted onto a surface. Imagine what the world might look like if office buildings, hospitals, or even schools could serve the additional function of generating energy to sustain local communities. Indeed, the future of solar energy is looking bright!

For a detailed breakdown of how solar panels convert energy from the sun into electrical energy, see our video “How do solar panels work?” If you’re interested in the meteorological challenges to solar power development, check out “Why aren't we only using solar power?” Finally, for a rundown of energy production and land use, watch “How much land does it take to power the world?” 

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Dan Kwartler
  • Director Christoph Sarow, AIM Creative Studios
  • Narrator Jack Cutmore-Scott
  • Storyboard Artist Christoph Sarow
  • Animator Joana Matos, Rudá Virginio, Lena Fraundienst, Christoph Sarow, Cristina Neto
  • Music André Aires
  • Sound Designer André Aires
  • Special Thanks Erik Pihl
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Fact-Checker Jennifer Nam, Charles Wallace

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