Solar power from space: solar innovation is establishing a brighter future

  • Sep 14, 2021
  • The New Times

In 1941, Isaac Asimov, a prolific science-fiction novelist, published “Reason.” The short story details the magnificent story of Powell and Donovan, two astronauts in a space mission, engaging with an intelligent robot. Like many other sci-fi novellas, Reason is full of innovative inventions that probably seemed crazy at the time; a talking robot, A.I. taking over human reasoning, frequent space traveling, and more. But the thing that caught my attention most was the logic for the mission - the space station supplies solar energy to an overcrowded earth via microwave beams.

Since the story was published, robots have become a novelty, A.I. has taken over entire industries, and space missions have never been more prominent. And now, space-based solar energy is slowly but surely becoming an accurate, viable technology, one of many innovative paths the industry is pursuing.

Solar energy has been around since the dawn of time and long before solar panels were invented. In the 7th century B.C., used sunlight to light fires; later, Roman bathhouses used “sunrooms” and massive windows to direct sunlight to heat the water. In the late 1700s and 1800s, researchers and scientists used sunlight to power steamboats. The first solar cell was created in 1883, which was exciting but inefficient, and in 1954, researchers at Bell Laboratories demonstrated the first practical silicon solar cell.

Solar power has undergone significant transformations since its commercialisation, and the industry has undergone continuous advancement, price fluctuations, and investment variations. The current state of renewable energy and the need for quick action in dealing with the global climate crisis has sped innovation processes in various industries. Solar energy is now witnessing an exciting renaissance, with space being only one frontier.

Harnessing solar energy from space has been a focus project for various countries, and decade-long projects are now coming to fruition. The California Institute of Technology (CalTech) recently announced that, since 2013, more than $100 million had been invested in helping make photovoltaic power from orbit a reality. After almost a decade, the CalTech team aims for the first test launch in late 2022 or 2023.

The Bishan station in Chongqing city in southwestern China is due for completion by the end of 2021, with tests due to begin next year. Under the current roadmap, China’s first megawatt-scale solar power test station should launch in 2030, scaling up to gigawatt-scale commercial operation by 2050. In this scenario, the satellite at an altitude of almost 36,000 km collects the solar power and beams it to Earth through microwaves for reconversion into electricity.

Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency, Jaxa, operates the Space Solar Power Systems (SSPS) research project. SSPS wants to convert energy from solar rays to either microwave or laser energy and transmit it from space to Earth for energy consumers.

Potential benefits for space solar energy are enormous, including a 24/7 supply of power unaffected by poor weather or night-time darkness and unlimited scaling. There is still much work and years before this technology could be made commercial and affordable, but there is no doubt it is underway. Exploring the opportunities of space energy is added to a long, interesting list of innovations that are constructing the sector for current and future necessities.

In recent years, as renewable energy positioned itself as the global savior, and with increasing investment in the field, energy tech is on an ever-increasing surge. In the solar sector, innovators pursue ways to make panels more efficient, lower costs, insert data practices, and much more.

There are incredible examples of creative solutions that are already changing the solar landscape. In many countries including the US and Israel, large installations of floating photovoltaic panels generate high volumes of electricity at a lower cost than existing land-based solar farms. In Germany and the UK, building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs) extend beyond rooftop-mounted solar panels to incorporate photovoltaic properties into the building materials themselves. BIPVs include roof tiles, window glasses, and facades that generate electricity to supply the building. Solar windows look like regular windows but utilize quantum dots instead of silicon used in more conventional solar panels. The quantum dots absorb non-visible sunlight and send it back to the solar cells, placed on the sides of the window panes.

Solar-powered cars are taking the lead in the automobile industry, and global companies, including Hyundai, Tesla, and Toyota, compete to reach the finish line. Solar paint consists of the liquid form of thin-film solar panels and can be applied on house walls to make it self-sufficient energy-wise. Energy optimisation is another issue, and one company is currently working on a cloud-based A.I. digital-asset management system that automates and optimizes solar P.V. plants, making renewable energy more efficient, accessible, and profitable.

The global Solar Energy Market was estimated at $50 Billion in 2019 and is expected to reach USD 200 Billion by 2026, according to GlobalNewsWire. The industry is growing and constantly innovating itself, set to become a leading energy provider across the world. Solar’s role in affordably supplying growing energy demand while also addressing the climate crisis makes it the most prominent, go-to solution. Governments, private companies, and people everywhere must take note and continue innovating on the one hand and adopting this effective technology on the other.

The writer is an entrepreneur and investor,leading sustainability-driven companies in Africa and the Middle East