Last week marked a few milestones in space exploration. Michael Collins, the pilot of the Apollo 11 command module, which took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon for a first stroll, passed away last Wednesday.
Moreover, it was announced that a record of $8.7 billion was raised by venture capitalists last year, in order to support companies venturing into commercial opportunities from space. Like France’s Eutelsat that invested $550 million in Tesla’s rival, satellite startup OneWeb.
And last, but certainly not least, China launched the first part of its space station, which is expected to be fully operational by 2022. Why do we care, you ask? Because when it comes to energy, space might well be the final frontier (to paraphrase Star Trek’s Captain Kirk).
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Powering a Moon village
According to a UN report, even by growing at a slower pace than now, the world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. That is the same year that the EU aims to be climate neutral and enjoy an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. I am, of course, referring to the Green Deal and the Paris Agreement.
Given the fact that we still produce about 60% of our electricity by fossil fuels, such a growth in the Earth’s population sounds scary. And this is also where space comes into play. China has already declared that one of the missions of its space station will be to deliver electricity as soon as 2030. The idea is to create a solar panel station that will absorb the sun’s power 24 hours a day and nearly every day, which means almost continuous power generation.
Indeed, a researcher from the China Academy of Space Technology Corporation, Pang Zhihao, said, according to the US media, a space solar power station held the promise of providing “an inexhaustible source of clean energy for humans”. Can you imagine the potential? Electric cars charged at any time and place. Support for our energy needs on a daily basis regardless of weather conditions. And of course, in a clean, net-zero way.
It does sound like Sci-fi, also given the fact that writer Isaac Asimov is credited with the idea of space-based solar power projects since 1941 (that’s the year he wrote his short story Reason that explores the topic). However, it is not.
Space-based solar power (SBSP) is not a new idea and it involves collecting the sun’s energy while in space and wirelessly transmitting it back to Earth. The SBSP tech uses “solar panels to collect solar energy in space with reflectors of inflatable mirrors that direct solar radiation onto solar panels and then beaming it on Earth through a microwave or laser. The energy is then received on Earth via a microwave antenna” according to a blog post on the website Greenmatch.
And it seems like the Chinese scientists are determined to prove the technology right. Between 2021 and 2025, according to an article from The Sydney Morning Herald, they first plan to build small and medium-sized solar power stations and subsequently launch them to the stratosphere to generate electricity. And the next step is to build a Megawatt level space solar power station by 2030. Thus, probably becoming the first country with an operational solar power station in space that actually produces electricity.
And what exactly is the EU doing on the matter? There are some individual projects, like France’s Eutelsat investment, but nothing anywhere near the Chinese endeavour. This makes me also wonder… while we, in Europe, argue about which one is the cheapest, safest and cleanest source of renewable energy on Earth (hydrogen, solar, wind, nuclear), did China just changed the game (and its terrain) underneath our noses and is about to leave us all behind? What do you think?
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Editor, Smart Energy International