As the world experiences extraordinarily high energy prices and their impoverishing inflationary effects, along with devastating droughts and floods from climate change threatening the planet and food security, the search for clean energy has intensified.
The International Energy Agency says by 2026, global renewable energy capacity will rise more than 60 per cent from 2020 levels, “equivalent to the current total global power capacity of fossil fuels and nuclear combined”. Marvellous! China, the US, Europe and India lead the expansion, accounting for 80 per cent of global renewable capacity.
And we could also be getting closer to an endless source of green energy, “the holy grail in tackling climate change”. Nine months ago, my column spoke of the increasing likelihood of Space-based Solar Power (SBSP) where a space station orbits to face the sun 24 hours a day and transmits energy to any part of the planet using microwave beams. This is the biggest potential energy source available to humans, says the US National Space Society (NSS), and could supply nearly all the electrical needs of every person on our planet, dwarfing all other sources of energy combined with very little negative environmental impact.
“A solar power plant floating 36,000 kilometres above our heads would receive the sun’s energy 24 hours a day, generating power 99 per cent of the time, only going offline when the Earth eclipses the sun. Furthermore, the sun’s rays wouldn’t be weakened by journeying through the Earth’s atmosphere. Such a plant would be up to six times more efficient than comparable technologies on Earth.”
The move is on. Japan, leader in SBSP research, would reportedly begin demonstration experiments to deploy solar panels in space from fiscal 2022; in the US, Pentagon scientists have successfully tested a solar panel, designed as a prototype for a system to send electricity from space back to any point on Earth, while the US Air Force will launch its “power-beaming” test mission by 2024; the European Space Agency (ESA) is proposing the development of Europe’s first space-based solar power system to be constructed in 2025; China announced two months ago it will build a space solar power station in 2028 to convert sunlight into electrical supply, transmitting power back to Earth to light up an entire city; and last week, a study revealed Britain will establish its first power station in space by 2035.
“Beamed power” will be the first industrial resource from space, predicts the ESA. Sam White, group leader for Frazer-Nash’s Techno-Economic Assessment, who led the British study, says once operational, the high yield, low cost of electricity “will make it a highly profitable revenue source for operating companies, with a healthy return to investors, including the Government”. Opportunity coming, private capital!
Then there is nuclear fusion, long considered the ideal way to provide “cheap and endless energy” to power the world. And with no carbon emissions or radioactive waste. It involves “smashing two atoms together at incredibly high speeds and transforming the energy from that reaction into electricity” that can power homes, factories, offices, utilities and vehicles.
For years, the science has been elusive. But, as Pranshu Verma wrote last week in The Washington Post, over the past year, nuclear fusion has inched closer to reality. Over a dozen private-sector companies are investing, many aiming for a productive fusion power plant by the 2030s. Venture capitalists are pumping billions into companies, racing to get a plant up and running. Phil Larochelle of Breakthrough Energy Ventures says private money is flowing into fusion at such high levels because “scientific advancements, such as better magnets, have made cheap nuclear fusion a likelier possibility”. The Biden administration, through the Inflation Reduction Act, is creating tax credits and grant programmes to help companies in deployment of this kind of energy. “We’re at a very exciting place,” said Dennis G Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, whilst acknowledging challenges remain to be overcome.
The Inflation Reduction Act will also boost production of Green Hydrogen (GH) as it provides US$369 billion for 21st-century energy and climate projects. Green Hydrogen will be pivotal for a de-carbonised future, potentially powering everything from industrial manufacturing and heavy-duty transport, to balancing energy grids and heating homes. A new hydrogen economy will be created with over 30 countries already planning investments in the sector. The EU, for example, will generate one million tons of renewable hydrogen annually by 2024, increasing to ten million by 2030. The International Energy Agency sees hydrogen use growing sixfold by 2050, when the global market could be worth US$11.7 trillion, says Goldman Sachs.
Produced through the process of electrolysis and using only renewable energy like wind and solar, green hydrogen creates no pollution, only steam. It can be used to produce green ammonia, the main constituent of fertiliser production. Experts say by 2030, green ammonia will be cost-competitive with grey ammonia produced conventionally from natural gas. Take note, Point Lisas.
For the sake of our planetary home and human survival, may the production of endless energy from Space-based Solar Power, Nuclear Fusion and Green Hydrogen come quickly enough.