Beam it down! Solar farms in space!

London, United Kingdom by NASA via Flickr CC

Euronews is reporting that giant solar farms orbiting the planet may someday power Europe. The European Space Agency (ESA) unveiled a plan to harvest the sun’s energy in space and beam it back down to Earth.

It’s an idea that has been around for a while, and the subject of science fiction stories, but now it is closer to science fact. The technology is still in the preliminary testing phase, but the goal is the construction of a 2-kilometer (1.2 mile) long solar space farm, generating as much energy as a nuclear power plant, according to Hannah Brown with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The farm would orbit about 36,000 kilometers above the Earth.

“[Such a project] would ensure that Europe becomes a key player– and potentially leader – in the international race towards scalable clean energy solutions for mitigating climate change,” the ESA said in a statement.

Solar power is a great source of clean energy, but it’s held back by some limitations. For example, solar panels can only harness power in the daytime, and even then, much of the sunlight is absorbed by the atmosphere on its journey to the ground. But in space, the sun’s beams are around ten times as intense as they are on Earth.

The ESA has partnered with Airbus to develop ‘wireless power transmission’ to capture this 24-hour source of electricity and beam it down to us. The technology is based on the transmission used by TV and communication satellites every day, Airbus engineer Nicolas Schneider explained: “We are not very far from a 4G antenna, except that what we want is not to radiate in all directions, we want to be very precise like a laser, in fact. It’s a wave that can be directed to this receiving antenna which will then transform this wave into electricity.”

The problem is one of scale. The satellite would be massive, and so difficult to launch and build. But doable.

With mega-billionaires so interested in playing around in space, maybe they should spend a few billion for this and become energy czars.

Let’s do this!

Dueling for compliant fuel

Bunkering by Cycling Man via Flickr

Container shipping operators are scrambling to come into compliance with United Nations decarbonization rules, according to IHS Markit.

In 1973, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) expanded the powers of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to regulate the environmental impacts of shipping. A MARPOL update in 2008 called for a reduction of the maximum sulfur content in marine bunker fuel from 3.50% to 0.50% in 2020, unless a supply study would conclude insufficient availability of compliance fuels and a delay to 2025 deemed necessary. But, in October 2016, the IMO came to a broad agreement to implement the global reduction in the sulfur content of marine bunker fuel from January 1, 2020.

IHS Markit estimates that about 55,000 ships of a total fleet of about 110,000 vessels burn heavy fuel oil bunkers and that roughly 30,000 ships account for about 80% of global fuel oil bunker use.

Compliant fuel means seven and eight-tenths (7.8) pounds per square inch (psi) low Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) gasoline, federal reformulated gasoline, or ethanol-blended low RVP gasoline as described in section 5 of the IMO rule.

Operators must therefore compete to secure shore-side production of eco fuels such as hydrogen, ammonia, and methanol with other energy-hungry industries. The current global supply of hydrogen, ammonia and methanol would barely cover the needs of the shipping industry, even without competition from other critical sectors such as manufacturing, oil refining, and the production of fertilizers, said the Shipping Gazette.

The shipping industry uses more than 300 million tons of fossil fuels every year, about five percent of global oil production, and there is still no clear pathway toward replacing that volume with renewable fuels.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), predicts ammonia will be the dominant alternative fuel for shipping by 2050.

Jonah Sweeney, a European marine fuels analyst at oil price reporting agency Argus, told the IMO that alternative fuels such as ammonia and methanol produced less energy than very low sulfur fuel oil (VLSFO). One ton of VLSFO produces 2.2 times more heat content than one ton of ammonia and 2.1 times more than methanol.

“It is important when looking at alternative fuel options to compare like for like in terms of energy output, otherwise if you take the outright price of methanol, for example, you will have a substantial discount to VLSFO, but you will need about twice as much,” Sweeney said, quoted in the Shipping Gazette.

This is a big problem, because about 93 percent of the global companies that have set net-zero goals are on course to fall short of their carbon emissions targets, according to Triplepundit.