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7 January 2016

Could we turn the Sahara into a giant solar factory?

The Inquiry: Should We Solar Panel the Sahara? on the BBC World Service.

By Antonia Quirke

“The world has a problem. At least, most people think so. The climate is changing. They blame carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, much of it released by the human need for energy obtained from fossil fuels . . . But the world also has a simple solution at hand.”

An episode of The Inquiry (3 January, 12.06pm – presumably made before the Christmas floods, but so compelling in their wake) began to outline how sunlight could be the one global source of renewable power. Speaking tenderly, as though to someone reluctant or convalescing (such an early-January tone), the presenter, Michael Blastland, explained that in just six hours the world’s deserts receive as much energy from the sun as human beings consume in a year. That the technology to harness this energy is scientifically sound and economically viable, and the total alleviation of energy poverty not mere theory.

Little mention was made of quite how old the idea is (plans for the first solar thermal power station were presented by the American engineer Frank Shuman to Egypt’s colonial elite in 1913) but there were plenty of seemingly child’s-play recaps: “A techno fix is feasible” and “Yes, you heard right”. At times it sounded trippy – freaky, even, this “consoling” tone in what was supposed to be a straightforward World Service information broadcast. Sometimes it sounded like an anecdote that had been refined and formed so much that its shape was frighteningly distorted. “Yes, we could find a tonne of energy. Yes, it is technologically possible . . .”

But by the time we got to the bit which conceded that many problems attach to turning the Sahara into a solar factory, the unanswerable questions sounded not just unremitting, but properly, cleverly bleak – because there was zero hint of redemption around the corner. Who would pay for and build it all? Which continent gets the power first? How to police it? Who gets the jobs?

A simple, sonorous phrase such as “politicians came” ultimately gave everything the air of a little New Year fable about the corruption of power and the far edge of innocence. A metaphor for apocalypse, even. Something slyly constructed to really hurt. Which it did. 

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue