The Himalayas and the Andes are goldmines... for solar power

The world's coldest, tallest, and most forbidding mountains might soon be the new frontier of solar power. These tall, snow-capped peaks could retain way more sunlight than elsewhere, and the intense cold would actually make panels work more efficiently.

It's easy to associate solar power with massive panels in the searing hot desert - after all, it makes sense that the place with the most intense heat would also have the most available solar energy. But whatever the Andes and Himalayas lose in temperature they gain back in altitude - since they're higher up, there's far more available sunlight to be harvested that hasn't yet dissipated into the atmosphere.

That's the finding of a team of Japanese researchers. They examined the amount of possible solar energy, or photovoltaic (PV) energy potential, in different parts of the world. In their paper, they explain that the hottest regions are generally the best suited to solar energy, with one rather major exception:

Generally, the performance ratio decreases with latitude because of temperature. However, regions with high altitude have higher performance ratios due to low temperature. The southern Andes, the Himalaya region, and Antarctica have the largest PV potentials.

There's also an added bonus in terms of the efficiency of the solar panels themselves. When you place a solar panel in the middle of the desert, it loses a lot of possible energy due to the intense heat. Putting the panels in the cold air of these super tall mountains would allow far more energy to be retained. Of course, there's room for caution here - we don't want to just stick a giant panel on the summit of Mount Everest, for instance - but these mountains could provide huge gains in solar energy, and provide isolated mountain communities with unprecedented energy access to boot.

Environmental Science and Technology via New Scientist. Image of Himalayas by ilkerender on Flickr.