MIT student Otto Ng proposes to solar-power the Arabian peninsula with more than 10,000 square kilometers of Powerscape – a tensile solar-collecting canopy comprised of inflatable mirrors. The problem with solar power, says Ng in a TED presentation, is the great amount of space required to produce the same amount of energy as a conventional power plant.
So, unless we’re making beautiful power stations a la the Land Art Generator Initiative, we’re sapping up precious land with ugly, resource-intensive solar collectors du jour. Ng proposes instead to cover the desert with an energy-generating canopy that also provides shade and a comfortable microclimate.
Powerscape is a programmable tensile canopy made of heliostat balloons and cable net mesh. It can trace the sun’s movement through the sky and even changes color throughout the day to deflect harsh sunlight.
At night, the canopy will be so transparent that stars will be visible through it.
The integrated mirrors concentrate sunlight onto a stirling dish that converts heat to energy, though Ng doesn’t provide any estimates on how much energy a square meter of canopy will produce, nor does he predict how the efficiency of his technology compares to existing solar-collectors.
He does point out, however, that within the next forty years, crude oil production will shrink to one-third of current levels, which could potentially cripple oil-dependent economies in the Middle East, not to mention global oil supplies.
Powerscapes can bridge the energy gap, although not without biological, geological and meteorological consequences.
Still, as climate change escalates in the next few decades as a result of our failure to stem fossil fuel production and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures in the desert will become even more fierce.
Solar-harvesting Powerscapes could mitigate resulting discomfort by providing huge swaths of shade that will in turn promote desert agriculture and livestock production. He even proposes to combine the canopies with German technology called Watergy to create closed-loop greenhouses, promoting greater food security in the desert.
Could this technology stem the rise of African land grabs?
Only in Arabia
There are numerous pitfalls associated with this novel idea.
First of all, it would cost a fortune to create this infrastructure in the desert and it would be very difficult to maintain. Although it will require fewer natural resources than conventional solar power plants, covering the Arabian Peninsula with a giant canopy would comprise a mammoth undertaking.
Still, we wouldn’t be surprised to see wealthy Gulf nations taking up the cause in order to compete with the North African countries that have joined the Desertec initiative and maintain their energy-rich lifestyle.