In the future, 2021 could well be remembered as the year that world leaders got serious about combating climate change. This is the year that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that human activity has unequivocally and irreversibly altered the climate. This is the year that the United Nations sounded a “code red for humanity,” and the year that the COP26 climate summit was described as the "world's best last chance" to alter the planet’s crash course toward catastrophic climate change. It is seen as critical and urgent that clean energy sources are scaled up faster than ever before, and that coal, oil, and gas are replaced by cleaner alternatives. A feat that is undeniably impossible to do overnight. Even if claims about ‘peak oil’ turn out to be true, “the world is expected to burn hundreds of billions of barrels of oil in the coming decades,” Bloomberg Markets reported earlier this year.
Furthermore, as the current energy crises in Europe and Asia have showcased, the world’s reliance on fossil fuels is far from over. Every time there is a supply crunch or a threat to energy security, the world rushes back to coal, climate pledges be damned. And it’s likely that as the world continues to decarbonize, the clean energy transition will be a bumpy one with more energy crunches along the way.
“Achieving net-zero is going to require an extremely delicate balancing act as the world struggles to move away from fossil fuels while keeping the economy running smoothly,” Oilprice reported last month . While green energy alternatives like solar, wind, and hydro have come a long way and are becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels, these technologies still have some kinks to work out. Hydropower is increasingly threatened by droughts related to climate change, and solar and wind power are variable, creating challenges for balancing supply and demand and keeping a steady flow of energy to and from the grid.
Lots of creative thinking has been directed at solving the problem of variability, from futuristic and deceptively simple energy storage options to “ anti-solar panels ” that can source energy from the changing temperatures brought on by nightfall. Now, a new innovation wants to avoid the issue of nightfall by blasting solar panels into orbit, where the sun never sets.
“Theoretically, if a bunch of solar panels were blasted into orbit, they'd soak up the sun even on the foggiest days and the darkest nights, storing an enormous amount of power. If that power were wirelessly beamed down to Earth, our planet could breathe in renewable clean energy, 24/7,” a recent CNET report proclaimed.
While proven technologies hold the greatest and most certain promise for meeting the goals set by the Paris climate accord, the staggering scale of the challenge ahead for humanity in the next generations calls for some out-of-the-box thinking as well. Technologies that have long existed only in the minds of scientists and dreamers may finally get a shot and some research and development investment in coming years, and space solar could be one of them.
A team from the California Institute of Technology is currently working on how to make space solar feasible. These panels would be light, compact, and foldable, able to launch in great numbers to create a kind of orbiting solar mine. That energy would then be beamed back down to Earth via microwaves. “Radio frequency energy would be beamed toward our planet onto areas reminiscent of solar fields in the desert,” the CNET report details. “But in place of what are typically solar panels, these regions would contain receivers with antennas that collect the harvested energy.”
This technology is still a bit closer to science fiction than science, but it’s getting closer every day to becoming a reality. With the steep challenges set forth by climate change, scientists like those at CalTech can’t dream big enough.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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