The Russian-Ukrainian war prompted the European Union to impose strong economic sanctions against Russia, including limits on buying natural gas from Russia.
Russia was the major supplier of natural gas for most of Europe prior to its invasion of Ukraine. The E.U. sanctions meant higher energy prices for Germany and many other European countries.
They were willing to pay the cost to help apply pressure to Russia and Vladimir Putin to seek peace. Rather than get involved in a shooting war, the E.U. and America sought to use economics.
Russia responded to the E.U. sanctions by shutting off its natural gas supply to the rest of Europe, adding to the increasing price of energy. Putin fought back against economics with more economics.
Europe has realized that it cannot depend on Russia as a reliable partner or energy supplier.
So now, the E.U. may build a "space-based solar power" system in orbit around Earth.
What Is Space-Based Solar Power?
Space-based solar power is exactly what it sounds like: a solar array floating in space, soaking up the sun's rays and beaming the energy back down to receivers on Earth.
The atmosphere, clouds, and the Earth itself would not be able to block solar panels up in space. The solar panels would absorb the sun's energy virtually 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Space-based solar power can produce up to 40 times the amount of energy as the same amount of land-based solar panels.
And space-based solar doesn't disrupt the local habitat, occupy farmland, or take up land that could be developed for other purposes.
The Really "Sci-Fi" Part of Space-Based Solar
The really "science-fiction" part is how the solar energy gets beamed down to Earth.
The same electromagnetic waves that carry sound to our radios or that heat up food in the microwave could be used to transfer energy from orbiting solar panels to receivers on Earth.
The receivers on Earth absorb the electromagnetic waves and convert them back into electricity.
Those receivers could be giant, centralized fields full of antennae. Imagine a field of corn, but make the corn into antennae.
Or those receivers could be mobile units that people could take down, set up, and move from place to place.
Or they might even be small, personal units that you set up in your yard or roof. You could even carry a small receiver around with you, theoretically.
The Challenge of Cost and Why the E.U. May Pay It Anyway
The number one challenge to space-based solar power is not technological. It's cost.
It costs a huge amount of money to send rockets up into space. The more stuff you want to send, the more rockets you have to build and fuel.
To send up enough solar panels, electronics, and other supplies to create space-based solar at large scale, someone would need to spend trillions of dollars.
While space-based solar would produce more carbon-free energy, more reliably, than any other renewable energy source, the increased efficiency would not off-set the massive initial investment.
But the European Space Agency, the E.U. version of NASA, recommends pursuing space-based solar anyway. Their most recent cost-benefit analysis finds that:
- Space-based solar power could provide energy by 2040.
- Once operational, space-based solar can provide energy security.
- Energy security will have economic and strategic benefits.
- Development needs to start now in order for this to happen by 2040.
Russia changed the calculus for Europe when it invaded Ukraine. Putin showed European leaders and societies the instability of depending so much on any one country for its energy needs.
Establishing space-based solar power may not make economic sense in the short-term, but it makes economic sense in the long-term and an awful lot of national security sense right now.
The future has always been renewable energy. But I, for one, didn't expect the future to be in outer space.