Fossil fuel reserves are finite, all but gone and it’s only a matter of before they run out. But as world population continues to grow, reliance on fossil fuels to power up our civilization continues to grow with it. What’s more, now it’s gotten to the point where fossil fuels are vanishing at a rapid rate – crude oil reserves are deteriorating at the massive clip of 4 billion tonnes a year – and new reserves are not only getting harder to find, but producing more is simply becoming extra-hazardous to our planet. And considering that experts are forecasting our power needs to double by 2100, there’s no question about it — if we don’t find some other way to meet our energy demands, we’re in a whole lot of trouble.
This is where renewable energy comes in. There’s geothermal power, hydroelectric power, solar power and wind power. Among the four, it’s solar power that holds the most promise. Supposedly, the energy that the sun can provide in just an hour is more than the total energy that humans can consume in a year. Which means the sun is more than capable of providing our energy needs. We just have to figure out how to tap into that almost infinite energy.
The main problem with the sun though is that it doesn’t shine all the time. And that poses a challenge because we can only tap into its power when it’s out. Or so we thought. Until researchers from NASA and the Pentagon came up with the brilliant idea of capturing the sun’s power from outside our atmosphere, in other words, directly from outer space.
By positioning solar panels in space instead of on the Earth’s surface, trapping of solar power will have no more limitations — there’s no night time to consider, not even clouds covering the sun. As an added bonus, solar energy can be trapped in its entirety — without dust, water vapor or the Earth’s ozone layer absorbing some of its power. And because absorption of energy is continuous, there won’t be any need to store it for later use, which also means none of it would be wasted as storing typically results in up to 50% energy loss.
There have been many proposals on how to make space-based solar power work. Most involve equipping a spacecraft with mirrors to reflect sunlight into a device that converts it into either laser or microwave energy, before being transmitted down to Earth at harmless intensity levels. The energy is collected by receiving stations, then re-converted to electricity.
There are those who oppose the idea because of the high cost it will entail. On the other hand, there are also those who believe that the benefits will be worth much more than what it will cost. Just think — it’s unlimited clean global power supply vs. possible wars caused by an oil crisis and worldwide catastrophe resulting from accelerated global warming. Besides, the concept is reasonably doable because we already have the technology and even the functional pieces needed to get things off the ground.
One of the most notable proponents is Paul Jaffe — spacecraft engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. During the pioneer Diplomacy, Development, and Defense (D3) Innovation Summit Pitch Challenge conducted by the Department of Defense last spring, he took home four out of seven awards for his space-based solar power plan. According to his presentation, development of his plan will be completed by 2021 at the cost of $350 million. Ultimately, the result will be a $10 billion in-orbit power plant that’s capable of powering over 150,000 homes.
The cost may not be appealing at this time. But as the technology improves and becomes more efficient, it is expected to become more competitive. And even if it doesn’t, people may not necessarily shy away from it. Especially now that the effects of global warming are clearly evident, more consumers may be willing to pay a higher price for electricity if the tradeoff will be saving our environment and the continued survival of our planet.
Aside from Jaffe, another advocate of space-based solar power is Gary Spirnak — CEO of California-based energy startup company Solaren. In line with their mission to ‘design, develop, launch, and operate the world’s first Space Solar Power plants’, they have been busy seeking out investors. So far, they’ve already closed a partnership deal with electric utility provider PG&E, tasking them to supply 200 megawatts of clean energy from outer space over a 15-year period, starting at the end of this decade.
Looking forward, let’s hope that the technology will be as effective as hypothesized. And that it can be launched in time to still be of help in solving the world’s energy crisis.