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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Century Old Space Science Revives Solar Power Dream

The economic and industrial turmoil created by the novel coronavirus pandemic will forever be associated with the year 2020, but its impact will be much farther reaching and longer lasting than just one anomalous calendar year. COVID-19 is changing the global economy as we know it, and fewer sectors are being as thoroughly battered, challenged, and transformed as the energy industry.  Until this year, decarbonization of the global economy seemed like an idealistic environmentalists’ pipe dream. Now, it seems an inevitable and fast-approaching reality as veteran oil empires crumble and renewable energies pick up steam. Headlines dramatically but earnestly reference the previously utopian “end of oil” while global leaders design green stimulus packages and organizations as influential and lauded as the World Economic Forum call for a “new energy order” and a “great reset.”

And as renewable energy companies take off to become the “new energy giants” they’re not just looking to take over the entire Earth’s energy industry--renewables are set to go galactic. The final frontier has been a major point of interest for the energy sector for years now; in fact, outer space is seen as a potential breeding ground for untold numbers of industries including mining, tourism, research and development, and data collection and analysis, to name just a very few. The commercial possibilities for the space economy are so considerable and as yet untapped that Bank of America Merrill Lynch projected back in 2017 that the space industry could explode to more than eight times its current size by 2050 to reach a total value of nearly $3 trillion.

Related: Brazil’s Oil Giant Slashes Its Five-Year Investment Plan

Already, there has been a lot of talk about bringing small nuclear reactors into space, but now it looks as if solar will get its piece of the pie in the sky as well. While they’re still very much in the research and development phase, large-scale solar-based power stations floating in the Earth’s orbit could very well be the future of our global energy systems. These stations would then beam power down to Earth in a green and emissions-free energy solution without the same issues of variability that wind and solar experience down on the ground. This beamed energy would have the potential to transform the global energy industry as well as the climate. 

The concept is not a new one. It was dreamed up by a Russian scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky way back in the 1920s, but until now the idea has been more fantasy than reality. But now, scientists and engineers around the world are getting close to taking the fiction out of science fiction. There are a lot of moving pieces to the puzzle, however, and many of the logistics of how to bring these massive power stations fruition are still in question. 

“One of the key challenges to overcome is how to assemble, launch and deploy such large structures,” reports Future Planet. “A single solar power station may have to cover as much as 10 sq km (4.9 sq miles) – equivalent to 1,400 football pitches. Using lightweight materials will also be critical, as the biggest expense will be the cost of launching the station into space on a rocket.”

While these are far from the only challenges to be faced in the development of these cutting-edge space stations, some of the best minds of our time are diligently working toward ironing out all these kinks and deploying an orbital solar station in the next couple of decades. Already, a team of Chinese researchers has developed a system that is projected to come online as soon as 2050. The system, called Omega, “should be capable of supplying 2GW of power into Earth’s grid at peak performance.” That’s the equivalent of about six million solar panels. At the risk of employing a grossly overused word, the successful launch of a renewable power system of that magnitude would be the very definition of disruptive.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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