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Space-Based Solar Power Could Accelerate Transition to Sustainable Energy

Solar, wind, nuclear, and carbon capture might have a new sustainable energy ally.

The world's energy sector is the largest pollutant in the world — representing more than 30% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to a report from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

With the rapid rollout of several sustainable energy alternatives to fossil fuel underway, the U.S. President's recent executive orders are a vote of confidence in the forthcoming transition — according to the White House's official website.

However, there may be a way to leverage the continued expansion of space-based arrays and satellites to hasten the country's — and perhaps also the world's — transition to sustainable energy.

Solar power advances multiply energy-producing surfaces

Recently, a new material was released that will enable materials supplying solar power to self-heal. Called antimony selenide (Sb2Se3), the new semi-conducting substance self-heals "like how a salamander is able to re-grow limbs when one is severed," said Professor Keith McKenna, according to Phys.org.

However, the lowering price of solar cells has made it possible to find new ways of integrating them into more surfaces than just roofs and remote solar farms. A team of researchers created a fully transparent solar cell that could be integrated into windows — substantially expanding the list of potentially energy-producing surfaces in a household, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Power Sources.

This means "invisible" solar cells might be installed in household windows, car windows, or even skyscrapers to multiply the power output of human-made surfaces.

Wind power expanding into offshore sources

Wind power is expanding into offshore production globally, as businesses including Vestas, NextWind, and many more take contracts to develop broader sustainable energy infrastructure, according to Wind Power Monthly.

Additionally, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy recently received approval to supply and install wind turbines for a new $9 billion offshore wind development in East Anglia — off the coast of England, according to a CNBC report.

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Nuclear Power needs to gain status as sustainable alternative to fossil fuel

The new U.S. President has voiced warm opinions on nuclear power — appointing the Commissioner Christopher Hanson of the country's Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the chairman of the agency, according to a Utility Dive report. This comes as the nuclear power sector faces several challenges — including an inability for some plants to turn profits in competitive electricity markets, and replacing retiring reactors with new ones — not to mention the discomfort many in the realm of public opinion still feel about nuclear.

And these challenges extend beyond the U.S. Late in January, a long-awaited report came out from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which delineated "conditions and requirements for the technical feasibility of a power system with a high share of renewables in France towards 2050."

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Crucially, the "technically possible" scenario of 100% renewable energy reliance in France implies a complete lack of nuclear power — which provides 70% of French energy as of writing. Nuclear is statistically one of the safest energy alternatives to fossil fuel around, but in many regions, it has yet to attain the status as a renewable energy source.

Multiple industries pledging to carbon capture projects

While rolling out sustainable energy resources brings us closer to transitioning from fossil fuels, several major firms in the energy sector are also (or instead) working on carbon capture — or finding ways to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide.

Exxon Mobil announced on Monday it would invest $3 billion in the next five years in developing energy projects capable of lowering its emissions, according to a New York Times report.

If Exxon follows through, it will first focus on reducing carbon emissions from industrial plants and finding ways to store the gas and prevent it from entering the atmosphere — where it contributes to climate change, said the NYTimes report.

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GM also made a recent pledge to find ways of reducing its carbon footprint — committing to go carbon-neutral by 2040 — 10 full years before the Paris Agreement's schedule, according to a Linkedin blog post from the company's CEO, Mary Barra.

"GM Motors plans to be carbon neutral by 2040 — which means removing emissions from all our products, including every vehicle we produce, and all of our global operations in the next twenty years," wrote Barra in the blog post.

Auto industry to expand all-electric EV infrastructure

As a consequence of its new carbon-neutral pledge, GM will likely see closer relations to organizations and stakeholders like the EDF — to extend charging networks for EVs in addition to helping consumers better understand how to adapt to all-electric vehicles, and the personal and global benefits of doing so.

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Needless to say, Tesla has become a world-leader in pushing the envelope in all-electric car production — with 139,300 EVs delivered in third-quarter 2020, according to Statistica, a business data platform. But despite the company's efforts to provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels, even the CEO of Tesla Elon Musk admitted that his company's vehicles had "quality problems," according to a recent CNN report.

However, another new alternative to fossil fuels is rapidly developing — one capable of surmounting some of the chief objections to solar power.

Space-based solar power could accelerate transition

Space-based solar power (SBSP) is nearing reality, and while rarely considered as a viable candidate in the sustainable energy mix, it might serve as a valuable resource as the world completes its transition to renewable energy sources.

Until recently, the idea of lasers in the upper-atmosphere was typically only found in science fiction. But by installing large mirror-like solar reflectors on orbital satellites, which convert the energy into electromagnetic radiation and beam it back to the Earth — with a laser or as microwave energy, according to a report from Power Technology.

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On the ground, a rectifying antenna could receive the waves of electromagnetic radiation types from space-based lasers, and change them into electricity, ready for entry into electricity grids.

Space-based technology provides advances in sustainable energy

If coordinated, a global network of solar-power satellites could provide and potentially relay energy to ground-based infrastructures — regardless of time-of-day, or weather. This would be especially helpful in the winter, when only 3% of average monthly sunlight reaches the surface (in Europe), whereas satellites could supply continual energy for 99% of the year, according to the Power Technology report.

The world has far to go before it can successfully transition away from fossil fuels and other sources linked to climate change. But as the nations and major corporations of the world increasingly endorse plans to reduce carbon emissions and integrate alternative sources, we could look to space — where the fringe of human advancement happens — to shore up the failings of the most ingrained industrial practices.

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