Solar and wind energy: challenges and solutions in desert regions

When considering the viability of the use of photovoltaic cells or wind turbines in desert regions, there are a raft of environmental challenges to consider. To highlight these challenges, we shall examine the case of the Kuwaiti energy industry and its attempted diversification into renewable energies in its desert regions. We shall use this case study to come to a conclusion as to the viability of these industries in desert regions and offer some solutions to the unique problems that trying to operate in desert conditions entails for the energies industry.

Across the globe there is an increased uptake in the use of both solar and wind energies. This trend is expected to be maintained and by the middle of the century the solar and wind industries are expected to be the energies industries that are expanding to the greatest extent. There are many reasons for this, chiefly that solar and wind energy is abundant, environmentally clean, quiet and a renewable source of energy. Thus, expansion of these energies industries is laudable then, however, like most large construction projects location is key. Even considering its green credentials there is dismay in some areas that prime land is being turned over to the energies industries in this way. A viable solution then is to use desert regions as they have otherwise limited use commercially speaking. Moreover, they have a highly advantageous wind and solar levels. Unfortunately, due to its very nature desert conditions can affect the photovoltaic cells in an adverse way limiting their ability to create energy at maximum efficiency. The photovoltaic cells are affected in three main ways – shadow, air pollution and dust. Thus, when designing new photovoltaic cells, it is salient to address these issues with either passive or active solutions on a case by case basis due to the wildly fluctuating conditions in different deserts.

If we are to look at the case study of Kuwait, we can see just how disruptive high levels of dust can be to day to day operations. From two separate studies in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 we can see the annual dust accumulation ranges as follows : 10–1065 t km−2 (average is 216 t km−2) in 2009–2010 and 149–576 t km−2 (average is 339 t km−2) in 2010–2011. From these figures one can surmise that Kuwait has one of the highest rate of dust accumulation in the world and as a result any conclusions from the study can be said to be a worst case scenario for the industry when looking to roll out these technologies to other desert areas. Dust particles can have a detrimental impact on the economic viability of desert based solar farms as it exponentially increases off site costs. Dust deposits on the panels hinders their effective operation so to combat this cleaning costs rise sharply. The necessity of cleaning operations is hamstrung by a deserts natural lack of water and as a result solutions need to be found to this that are often worryingly high for ground breaking ventures such as this due to the fact  that there is little or no infrastructure available and its creation incurs higher costs still. Moreover, dust was shown to degrade the energy delivery leading to a reduction of between 15-30% of output. As a result, the study concludes that more work is needed in the design stage to desert proof the photovoltaic cells, as at the present levels of return seen are verging on making this venture look unprofitable for many years to come.

However, the study does give us some positives. Thankfully, the effect of dust on wind turbines was taken into account during the design stage of the wind farm. As a result, there has been no adverse effect or downtime noted. From this it is clear that deserts offer unique challenges to the renewable energies industry but if these are combated in the design stage then desert scan become a profitable place to produce renewable energy.