The future state of energy is no doubt one of the largest and most serious challenges facing the world today—a fear that has also provided a necessary catalyst for some of the greatest opportunities for innovative solutions. But, in a macro-electronic based world, coupled with exponential population growth, will human ingenuity be able to keep up?
It's in man's nature to survive, after all. That's why today's entrepreneurs are pursuing creative technologies that will ensure our ability to power generations to come, creating completely new industries in the process. Solar energy, in particular, has always been a popular renewable source of power with the greatest potential. As the industry has developed over the years, the market has rapidly evolved and become more economically viable. Even space-based solar power (SBSP) is now an approaching reality, and one to start paying close attention to.
It's not that the technology hasn't been there. Mankind has been launching satellites into orbit and converting transmission frequencies back to Earth for decades—that's all very well understood. The challenge has always been the commercial aspect, or the cost of getting solar satellites up into space in the first place. Traditionally, in a solar market dominated by heavy silicone-based photovoltaics, solar panels have been too heavy to launch into space to be profitable. With the advent of ultra-thin film photovoltaic panels, however, weight requirements have dramatically decreased. Launch costs in the commercial industry are also declining and the amount of R&D in the next generation of space travel has enabled orbit-based technologies that didn't exist a few years ago.
While many of today's most depended on resources on Earth are finite, the sun is not. But unlike ground-based renewables like solar and wind power, SBSP is not subject to the intermitencies involved with weather conditions.
“Developing the technology to reach that source directly to be used abundantly and 24 hours of the day would serve as the holy grail of renewable energy,” says Peter Sage, one of the Founders of Space Energy, a forward thinking renewable energy company.
Space Energy's plans to commission an in-depth study of SBSP will address the technical and commercial aspects in route to the world's first orbital demonstration, with the help of some of the most accomplished experts in the field. The $10 million study is expected to take six to eight months, at which point, concrete figures will be established and energy purchase agreements set up to fund the $300 million it will take to launch the SBSP demonstrator.
At that point, other minor challenges will be addressed including misconceptions about the safety involved in the transmission of solar power down to Earth or the possibilities of SBSP demonstrations colliding with the International Space Station. That's all a matter of educating the public. The more companies and governments who get involved in SBSP, the quicker those myths will dissolve.
“This isn't anything short of an Apollo type project,” says Sage. “But for now, for us to move forward towards a civilization where our children have a chance of a sustainable future, it's going to require a level of coordination cross-culturally, globally and politically.”
In a market where the demand for clean energy will never become obsolete, the more involved, the better. The variety of players in SBSP will help raise the public profile of the technology and increase the scope of unification or co-development. “Now is the time to start collaborating,” says Sage.
Unfortunately, the US government does not see it that way. Although the Department of Defense has supported the pursuit of SBSP from an energy security standpoint, the US is not exactly politically set up to make it easy for these types of projects to come to fruition. Having approached the State Department, NASA and Department of Energy, Sage came to a stalemate.
Sage described NASA as “a collection of sub-agencies, all fighting with each other over budget and technological prominence. It doesn't serve its purpose as well as it could in any way, shape or form.”
Not only were NASA and the Department of Energy reluctant to work together on the technology, but politicians were also reluctant to take on a project that could potentially be used to push a political agenda.
“It was made quite clear to us that when we spoke to politicians on both sides of the House that the problem with a massive project like this is that no matter how good it is or how much it would serve the US economy—the amount of jobs gained through energy independence, among other benefits—if one party gets behind it and endorses it, it simply becomes a target for the other party to tear down,” says Sage.
Yet, the prospect of an all-out global conflict over the last remaining scraps of nonrenewable energy has been taken very seriously by the National Security Space Office of the Pentagon, as discussed in a report conducted by Lieutenant Colonel Michael J Hornitscheck of the US Air Force entitled "War Without Oil: A Catalyst for True Transformation."
For now, SBSP is getting the ball rolling in other countries like Japan, China and India, where environments are more ideal for developing and investing in the technology, Sage explains on a phone call from his office in the United Arab Emirates.
Over the next decade, energy is likely to become a major source of conflict as electricity demands increase to the point of becoming unaffordable to the average citizen.
“In England, where I'm from,” notes Sage, “energy prices have increased 50-60 percent in the last five years. That's completely unsustainable. The average family is living in energy poverty in one of the first first world countries you could name.”
From that perspective, it's hard to understand the politicization of energy. Regardless, SBSP is well in the works and is set to revolutionize the way the world uses and generates energy. With the ability to transfer energy on demand anywhere on Earth as needed 24/7 in a way that no other form of energy can, the implications are enormous, offering a global solution to some of the most serious challenges ever faced in history.