Beaming down energy from space
We know the Sun can provide all the energy we could need. Scientists, including researchers at ESA are trying to find a way to capitalise on this amazing energy source without negatively affecting life on Earth. Whilst power plants and photovoltaic cells have made massive advances, they can lose efficiency due to bad weather, and cannot function at night. For this reason, scientists are looking at ways of capturing the Sun's rays before they enter the Earth's atmosphere and then sending the electricity to the ground from generators in space.
In space-based solar power, the sunlight could be turned to electricity that could then be beamed to Earth. The process would be analogous to the power supply of many satellites – but on a much bigger scale. Studies have shown the feasibility of the concept, but many technologies still need to be improved in the coming decades. ESA is exploring these technologies, many of which have other useful applications on Earth.
In industry, companies such as EADS Astrium are also working on the problem. The company envisages producing roughly 10 kW to users on the ground using a laser-powered transmission system.
High-energy beams being sent to Earth would be no more powerful than normal sunlight, and less harmful to humans since they would not carry ultraviolet wavelengths, which can be damage human eyes and skin. Astrium is continuing to invest in research to develop the technology could yield safe and sufficient power for people all over the planet.
The European Network on Solar Power from space was established in 2002 to allow the sharing of expertise and experience from the solar power and space industries. Studies included the rates of power usage and supply that would be required. The upfront costs would be considerable – especially the cost of the launch of equipment to orbit. However, the amount of energy generated in space would quickly outstrip the amount of energy needed to build the satellites. Whilst terrestrial solar power will be a significant contributor of energy in the next 20 years in Europe, space-based solar power could increase in importance thereafter.