Infinite supply? Energy generation from space may be the answer

4 min

It might be dark up there, but the sun always shines in space, and now scientists believe that an orbital solar power station could be an inexhaustible source of clean energy for Earth.

Space has always represented infinite possibilities for the human race, even centuries before the first interstellar explorers made those epic voyages in the mid-20th century. The final frontier has inspired us scientifically and culturally – spawning endless movies, seminal television shows and classic albums. But now, some industry and scientific experts are suggesting, space could hold the key to delivering our global energy needs.

With Earth’s population expected to reach just short of 10 billion by the mid-point of this century, demand for reliable energy (and large quantities of it) are only going to increase. This quandary is something a team of experts at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have been working on for the past few years as part of their Space Solar Power Project.

According to Caltech, ‘Collecting solar power in space and transmitting the energy wirelessly to Earth through microwaves enables terrestrial power availability unaffected by weather or time of day. Solar power could be continuously available anywhere on earth.’

The Space Solar Power Project’s concept is based on the modular assembly of ultralight, foldable, 2D integrated elements. The project team state that the integration of solar power and radio frequency (RF) conversion in one element avoids a power distribution network throughout the structure, further reducing weight and complexity. This concept enables scalability and mitigates local element failure impact on other parts of the system.

Their most recent prototype collects sunlight, converts it to RF electric power, then wirelessly transmits that power in a steerable beam.

And now China is pursuing its own ambitions, as they are attempting to build the world’s first solar power station to be positioned in the Earth’s orbit. According to Sydney Morning Herald reporting, Chinese scientists estimate it could supply energy 99% of the time – at six times the intensity of terrestrial solar farms.

Chinese scientists first plan to build and launch small to medium-sized solar power stations (as they work to overcome challenges including the weight of such a station, expected to be 1000 tonnes, greater than 400 tonnes of the International Space Station) to be launched into the stratosphere to generate electricity, between 2021 and 2025.

Much closer to home, AEMO continues to monitor, evaluate and forecast for Australia’s energy and supply requirements as the industry transforms (see our recent 2019 Electricity Statement of Opportunities), largely due to evolving technology such as the proliferation of solar photovoltaic (PV) amongst consumers and businesses alike.

On Earth, as in space, the future for energy supply remains rife with both challenges and opportunities and the coming years will provide plenty of both. Solar power represents the majority of new generation and capacity entering our domestic energy market and will remain a key catalyst for change in the energy sectors around the world…and beyond.

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