Andes and Himalayas could be solar power hotspots

Just four per cent of the area with the highest potential in the Himalayas, or around 120,000 square kilometres, could power the entirety of China, based on 2007 electricity consumption data. The freezing heights of the Himalaya region in South Asia, and the highest mountains in the Andes in South America, are two of the best places to produce solar energy, according to a study.

So far, hot and sunny regions, such as North Africa have been hailed as the best for large-scale concentrated solar energy production — such as the concentrating solar thermal power initiative DESERTEC. But a study has found that key areas for solar energy production through photovoltaic (PV) panels are in the coldest regions in the world, including Antarctica.

These areas have a lot of sunshine — and therefore a high amount of solar irradiation — and low temperatures help improve solar panel performance. Just four per cent of the area with the highest potential in the Himalayas, or around 120,000 square kilometres, could power the entirety of China, based on 2007 electricity consumption data, the study says.

It could also provide electricity to India, as well as contribute to the mitigation of climate change by reducing CO2 emissions in the two growing economies, the study says. “So far, the price of photovoltaic has been decreasing and its efficiency increasing very rapidly,” said Kotaro Kawajiri, lead author from the Research Institute of Science for Safety and Sustainability at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, adding that this makes it a promising technology for the future.

“My research goal is to support an Asian DESERTEC project in the future,” Kawajiri said. “If it is realised, the impact would be huge because CO2 emissions in Asia are becoming one of the largest problems in the world.” The results could also prove a good incentive for small-scale solar electrification of remote, rural areas, Kawajiri added.

But although the potential is there, Kawajiri admitted that the costs of producing solar energy on a large scale in these areas may still be too high, due to practical limitations. “To realise the potential, there are some problems such as snow fall, loss of electricity during transmission, and the efforts of installing PVs in such (remote) regions,” he said. “There is a need for a feasibility study to clarify whether the potential is really [practically] useful or not,” he told SciDev.Net. Colombian physicist and energy consultant Humberto Rodríguez, agreed with the study’s conclusions, adding that the light in such areas has a great proportion of high-energy blue light, which makes the potential for energy generation even bigger.

Kotaro Kawajiri and colleagues explain that the potential for generating electricity with renewable solar energy depends heavily on geographic location. Arid and semi-arid areas with plenty of sunshine long have been recognized as good solar sites. However, the scientists point out that, as a result of the limited data available for critical weather-related conditions on a global scale, gaps still exist in knowledge about the best geographical locations for producing solar energy. To expand that knowledge, they used one established technique to estimate global solar energy potential using the data that are available. The technique takes into account the effects of temperature on the output of solar cells. Future work will consider other variables, such as transmission losses and snow fall.

As expected, they found that many hot regions such as the U.S. desert southwest are ideal locations for solar arrays. However, they also found that many cold regions at high elevations receive a lot of sunlight — so much so that their potential for producing power from the sun is even higher than in some desert areas. Kawajiri and colleagues found, for instance, that the Himalayas, which include Mt. Everest, could be an ideal locale for solar fields that generate electricity for the fast-expanding economy of the People’s Republic of China.

Kotaro Kawajiri, Takashi Oozeki, Yutaka Genchi. Effect of Temperature on PV Potential in the World. Environmental Science & Technology, 2011,