Antarctica as a Solar Hub: Opportunity or Pipe Dream?


When it comes to installing large solar power plants, it is important to choose the right location for them. For it to be ideal, it is necessary to take into account certain and common factors for all cases: an abundance of sunlight, lack of shading, a large free space and the possibility of building a solar power plant there. After all, it is obvious that the appearance of a giant solar farm is difficult to imagine in the center of a large metropolis – in Manhattan, Tokyo or Paris, where real estate prices are among the highest in the world. Therefore, the presence of huge open spaces in Antarctica, the average annual sunshine for half a year and thousands of square kilometers of free land that is not privately owned by anyone, theoretically make this area a promising future location for large solar installations supported by government institutions.

Optimists believe that one day Antarctica, hosting a large solar farm, will demonstrate both the innovative possibilities of technology and the ability of mankind to use the southernmost continent in a new way . However, today there are many obstacles to the introduction of solar technologies here, which may well remain unchanged over the next years and even decades. Some of the current barriers are due to a lack of technological development, while others are due to politics and international competition that can hinder scientific progress.

Of course, the prospect of considering Antarctica as a site for a giant solar plant is a bold decision. But the very nature of the southernmost continent and any human interaction with it has always required courage, as well as pioneering readiness and determination. It is in this vein that such an improbable at first glance idea should be considered critically, and in turn, answer the question: is it really possible to produce large-scale solar energy in Antarctica or is it a pipe dream?

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Antarctica in the international system

Considering this issue today, it is necessary to take into account some events of the past. In 1959, after many years of negotiations, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty. This document was a real success for the public, preventing potential territorial claims in the future and limiting the use of Antarctica for scientific purposes. But as we will see below, within a few decades, a colossal seismic shift could occur in the geopolitical position of Antarctica.

Meanwhile, global demand for solar and energy resources as a whole will only increase. And in this vein, the potential of Antarctica can significantly affect the future of international politics, both for better and for worse.

History of solar energy development in Antarctica

solar panels in Antarctica

Despite the fact that there is no permanent population in Antarctica, there are always between 1,000 and 5,000 people here, depending on the season. These small communities have been active in the development of solar energy in Antarctica over the past years.

Since 2009, the Belgian Antarctic research station Princess Elisabeth has been running exclusively on renewable energy. Kyocera Fineceramics GmbH provided the station with 408 solar panels, providing a total output of around 52.72 kWh with an annual capacity of around 45.7 MWh/year. Together, this amounted to approximately one third of the plant’s total electricity demand, with the remainder provided by wind power.

Australia’s Casey Research Station saw more than 100 solar panels connected during 2019, making it one of the largest solar installations in Antarctica today. Thanks to this, the station was able to reduce the use of diesel fuel for generators.

According to Nisha Harris, media manager and spokesperson for the Australian Antarctic Department at the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, the Casey station solar plant is an achievement in itself and a potential stepping stone for the future.

“We are very pleased that we were able to install the Casey Solar Farm. It has been in use for over 12 months now and the panels have been a huge help in reducing the amount of solar generators,” Mrs. Harris told Solar Magazine.

“Looking ahead, we are actively considering implementing battery storage systems and are now starting to assess how viable large-scale photovoltaic arrays will be for Antarctic summer sites such as Wilkins Airfield. The problem for these places is the huge area required to install solar panels and the wide range of angle of incidence of sunlight in these latitudes, but we are optimistic and hope that everything will work out.”

While the existence of solar power in Antarctica and its use by (temporary) residents is an undeniable achievement, the vast expanse and many months of constant sunlight give futurologists a field for predictions. The latter are watching with interest the emergence of solar installations on this continent, reflecting on what could happen in the future if a giant solar farm serves a community located outside of Antarctica. True, it is difficult to talk about the realism of such assumptions, given the extreme conditions and the need to overcome the difficulties associated with them. And cabling is key.

Installation length and depth

Although the development of technology almost everywhere in the world was made possible by submarine cables, for many years the Antarctic was the only place on the globe where this solution could not be implemented due to a number of obstacles. The task here was twofold. Researchers temporarily residing on this continent had to make do with satellite Internet, which has low speed and insufficient stability. And to make communication more reliable, fiber optic cables are required. The difficulty lies in costs and logistics – the cables must withstand 50-degree frost, and their laying in extreme conditions is not easy and expensive. The problem of overcoming these difficulties has become a limiting factor in the progress of telecommunications in Antarctica.

This is a reality that everyone who would like to create a large-scale solar station in Antarctica will face, the purpose of which is to generate electricity and deliver it to other continents. Of course, no one can foresee all the technological advances and innovations that will shape the future. However, even if we do not take into account the difficult climatic conditions of Antarctica, its remoteness from other continents, the current capacity of solar technologies is also a difficult problem that needs to be addressed.

That’s why the plans of the Singapore energy company SunCable deserve attention in this area. According to their project, a huge solar farm built in Tennant Creek in Australia’s Northern Territory will export solar energy to Singapore via a 3,800 km submarine cable.

If this project demonstrates its effectiveness to the world in a few years and proves successful, this will undoubtedly encourage countries to partner in other solar projects, including those that extend over long distances. But even though the shortest distance between Antarctica and its nearest neighboring continent, South America, is only about 1000 km (depending on whether you measure from the northernmost islands of Antarctica or from its mainland, starting south), the distance between other islands and continents – Hobart, Tasmania and the nearest Australian station Casey – is already 3443 km.

Any underground cable that could connect Antarctica and other continents would need backup, and any cable failure would require a lot of time and expense to fix the failure, especially if it happened at a remote site of the link.

Smart installation plan

Smart installation plan

The prospects for the development of solar energy in Antarctica require not only studying the past, but also looking into the future. After all, although humanity today has not yet received the hoverboards from Back to the Future or the flying cars from the Jetsons cartoon, we are still rapidly advancing in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

Indeed, firms such as Germany’s PV Kraftwerk and Gehrlicher have already made significant strides in using robots in solar installations. If Antarctica is ever to host a major solar project, it doesn’t necessarily need a large team of people to get involved and work on it. Advances in technology, combined with other advances in artificial intelligence, will help reduce costs, speed up production time, increase productivity, and increase the chances of a similar project implemented by one or more partner countries.

However, it should be borne in mind that, in accordance with the current Antarctic Treaty, this document does not give any nation the right to claim land directly, and previously put forward territorial claims are now suspended. But to discuss the potential development of solar technology in Antarctica, one must take into account that the southernmost continent has an unclear political future, especially in the context of 2048.

Territorial disputes

Territorial disputes

In 2048, the current Antarctic Treaty, which suspended territorial claims and curbed militarization, could be changed. At this stage, even if we do not take into account the serious burden on states associated with the coronavirus today, and if it is possible to change the treaty even tomorrow, it is unlikely that all countries will rush here to conquer new territories.

This is due not least to the fact that although Antarctica has a huge potential for minerals and resources – according to some estimates, the continent can contain up to 200 billion barrels of oil – at present, the cost of extracting and transporting them will be many times higher than the possibility to get them in other places accessible to people. But in 2048 everything can change, the world will undoubtedly become different.

In addition to the usual territorial claims as to which flag flies over the continent, other disputes may arise. Although green energy will play an increasing role, the transition to it will be accompanied by many potential conflicts related to the limited reserves of natural resources, in particular fuel minerals. That’s why even skeptics who doubt the possibility of a dispute over Antarctica are likely to have to agree with a serious problem that could arise in the High North.

Forecasts show that there are up to 90 billion barrels of oil in the Arctic. Despite the existence of a treaty there similar to the Antarctic Treaty and limiting the ability of many countries to participate in territorial conflicts, there have already been some local oil operations. For example, exploration work by Shell, which ceased in 2015 due to high costs, the complexity of exploration in harsh climatic conditions, and public pressure.

Given the proximity of many large oil-producing countries to the Arctic, one can expect that the aggravation of tensions around energy resources at the North Pole may begin earlier than at the South. It is disappointing that in today’s realities, the prospects for solar energy in both the Arctic and Antarctic are underestimated, and this may slow down the development of these processes in the future.

Antarctic energy future: choice between old or new sources of energy?

Looking decades ahead, it seems that the greatest obstacles to the development of solar energy in Antarctica may not so much be technological limitations as the ambitions of mankind. And it must be borne in mind that 2048 is “not far off”: after all, what seems like a long period for human life is only a moment for history. Especially when it comes to the history of nations involved in territorial disputes and eager to gain access to vital resources.

Undoubtedly, all parties will make serious efforts to continue the agreements on the demilitarization of Antarctica, but everyone understands that the world in 2048 will be very different from the realities that exist today. In anticipation of this date, tensions around Antarctica are likely to increase, which, in turn, may constrain the potential for growth and development of solar energy on the southernmost continent.
However, as early as this decade, a serious conversation could begin about the future of Antarctica, not as a territory of aggression or strife, but as a place for research and development in the field of renewable energy sources in the future, which can still benefit the international community.

Although at present we are quite far from the large-scale use of solar energy in Antarctica, but perhaps the future will be prompted by the well-known saying “need for inventions is cunning” or its English version “need is the mother of inventions”. It is certain that the rapid development of solar technology, the war-free nature of Antarctica, and the expected growth in resource requirements in the coming years will accelerate scientific and technological progress in this direction, laying the foundation for future large-scale solar energy projects in Antarctica. Of course, this is unlikely to happen in 1 year, and probably not even in 10 years, but perhaps in 50? Or after 100?

For those of us who hope for the continued peaceful use of Antarctica, no matter how events unfold after 2048, it is important today to continue research into the potential use of the southernmost continent as a renewable energy hub. After all, the widespread penetration of renewable energy into various spheres of human life will help to balance (or even completely stop) the desire of any nation to claim this territory for the sake of prospecting and mining. This approach will provide an opportunity to further develop Antarctica as a research center for renewable energy sources, which may one day become an independent source of alternative energy.


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