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The Race For Space-Based Solar Power Is Underway

There’s a new kind of space race unfolding. This time it’s not a battle between world superpowers or enterprising tech billionaires, it’s a rush to shore up future energy security. A recent experiment by European aerospace giant Airbus has shown that beaming solar power directly to Earth from outer space could be a real possibility – and it wouldn’t be any more expensive than our existing energy infrastructure down here on Earth. While it sounds like something straight out of science fiction, scientists across the world clearly think it could be a game-changing reality as laboratories vie for investment to carry out yearslong investigations to bring the idea to fruition.

Airbus’ breakthrough demonstration occurred at Airbus' X-Works Innovation Factory in Germany in September, when scientists successfully transmitted electrical power in the form of microwaves from a photovoltaic panel in the form of microwaves to a receiver. “The beamed energy lit up a model city and powered a hydrogen generator and a fridge containing alcohol-free beer that the audience later enjoyed,” Space.com reported.

While there is a lot of (non-alcoholic) buzz around the new technology, experimentation is still in its very early phases. So far, Airbus’ wireless transmission system has only managed to beam energy a little over 100 feet (30 meters) – a far cry from the distance to space, but engineers have said that they have little doubt that they can reach that distance within the next ten years. The next step is to beam solar power down to the ground from an aerial platform. Then, the final frontier.

It should come as no surprise that Airbus is interested in the technology as a “game changer for aircraft.” The idea is that energy could be beamed directly to aircraft, and that aircraft themselves could serve as mobile nodes to transmit power all over the globe. But the possibilities for the technology go far beyond the aerospace sector.

Beaming solar power directly from space could have major implications for decarbonization as well as side-stepping future energy shortages. Solar energy can be much more efficiently harvested outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, where clouds and particulates get in the way. "Power beaming technologies would enable the creation of new energy networks in the sky and could help solve the energy problem," Jean-Dominique Coste, a senior manager at Airbus' innovative Blue Sky department, said in a statement "They would enable countries to fully control and distribute their energy where needed, independently."

In fact, the European Space Agency is currently mulling over a three-year study, called ESA SOLARIS, to see if having huge solar farms in space could work, and the BBC reports that it is likely to get approved, thanks in part to the recent breakthrough at Airbus. “The eventual aim is to have giant satellites in orbit, each able to generate the same amount of electricity as a power station.” That energy will then be beamed directly to terrestrial energy grids, and perhaps into your home.

The idea itself isn’t new, but the practical knowledge that could make it a reality is just starting to materialize in an exciting galvanization of technological advances, cutting-edge innovative thinking, and more affordable parts and infrastructure. “The game-changer has been the plummeting cost of launches, thanks to reusable rockets and other innovations developed by the private sector,” the BBC reports. “But there have also been advances in robotic construction in space,” in addition to the space-beaming breakthrough.

While the environmental and energy security implications of such a project are enormously hopeful, it’s not all hunky dory. It wouldn’t be a space race if everyone was playing for the same team and the same ideals, and ESA SOLARIS isn’t the only project of its kind. China, too, is working on beaming solar energy from its space station. The objective of the project is not decarbonization, however, or even energy security. Instead, the controversial project is aimed at powering military equipment and remote outposts.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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