On planet Earth we are making great strides when it comes to harnessing renewable energy in order to meet our sustainability needs. For example, earlier this year, Germany supplied 15% of the country’s total energy with coal and nuclear power (1). In 2016, nearly all of Costa Rica’s electricity was produced from renewable sources (2). And more recently, Scotland set a renewable energy record as wind power supplied 118% of the country’s electricity (3). These are impressive and promising achievements.
However, even if renewable energy is far better for the environment and our health than fossil fuels (4) – which are the primary source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – this doesn’t mean that renewable energy is sustainable (5). What we really need is truly sustainable renewable energy. And space could provide us with exactly this.
Space-based sustainable energy
According to The Space Review, we need to harness the solar energy available in space because countries like the US don’t have “sufficient suitable land to utilise terrestrial renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.” (6) Indeed, renewable energy technologies, such as solar farms, require enormous amounts of land (7). One side-effect of this land use is that it will put solar farms in competition with the agricultural industry. What we need is renewable energy that can be sourced without conflicting with uses of land that are essential to our lives.
So it may not be the renewable energy industry that becomes key to our continued survival, but the establishment and development of the space solar industry. The National Space Society explains why our focus should be on space:
“Space Solar Power gathers energy from sunlight in space and transmits it wirelessly to earth.” (8)
In a nutshell, meeting out energy needs with space solar power would be the ultimate sustainability solution because it requires no land use. A rapidly rising global population is putting immense pressure on the land, since the 83 million extra people appearing on the planet every year need somewhere to live, a place to work and arable land to provide them with food (9). We really can’t afford to put further pressure on the land by solely meeting our energy needs with renewable energy. Perhaps these technologies can be part of a diverse solution, but they are certainly no silver bullet.
Technology in progress
But how exactly are we meant to transmit all of that solar energy from space back to Earth? Well, scientists in Japan have already taken crucial steps in making this technology a reality.
Mitsubishi have successfully tested a system which collects solar power from orbit and transmits it back to Earth. And Yasuyuki Fukumuro, from JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, said that although developing this technology is expensive, it will be well worth the rewards, since “power can be generated so long as the sun is there”. (The sun won’t die for another 5 billion years (10)).
While we still have potentially 5 billion years of Earth-bound existence left, we should do whatever we can to survive. When we look at the benefits of space solar energy, it seems to trump all other energy sources in terms of sustainability. The National Space Society highlights:
“The solar energy available in space is literally billions of times greater than we use today. The lifetime of the sun is an estimated 4-5 billion years, making space solar power a truly long-term energy solution. As Earth receives only one part in 2.3 billion of the sun’s output, space solar power is by far the largest potential energy source available, dwarfing all others combined.”
It’s becoming clear that if we want to avoid extinction, we have to avert our eyes towards space, rather than keep our attention fixed on terrestrial solutions. Space will either provide us with enough energy to sustain us or it will be the arena in which we colonise other planets. Our exact future will very much depend on how technology progresses.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and smart drugs. He is also currently writing a book about the psychedelic drug DMT.