UAE homes can get power from space
The dream of generating clean, abundant and eventually affordable electricity in space is closer to reality than ever before. An additional bonus could be abundant and clean water.
Imagine thousands of megawatts of clean solar power being harvested in space and delivered affordably on earth. Imagine this being done in a way that increases supply of clean water. Imagine all this happening in the next two decades, or less. And imagine UAE taking a lead in delivering such a revolutionary solution to the world.
The oil rich nations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region currently have little incentive to raise the price of electricity generated through fossil fuels which will make renewable energy more attractive. But in the years to come, rising environment pollution and falling oil and gas reserves will make shift to renewable energy policy imminent. As of now, just Abu Dhabi has installed a 100 MW solar thermal power plant, but the MENA region and the Gulf States as a whole are yet to take-off into the renewable energy era, with Saudi Arabia having only 0.003 gigawatts of installed solar energy capacity.
One way to speed up the process is, very strangely, by addressing another survival issue in the region: the water crisis. Water scarcity is likely to be considered as one of the major survival issues for many countries and is predicted to happen before fossil fuels deplete this century. West Asia and other MENA regions will be most adversely affected.
In 2011, the former President of India, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, when visiting Dubai proposed an India-UAE joint energy platform for research, development and implementation of a green energy solution. Seawater provides 97.2 per cent of all available water on earth, is the only reliable source which could provide perennial supply of fresh water through desalination. Dr Kalam had encouraged studies and experimental work in India on seawater desalination powered by solar energy. Those studies when extended to the economic conditions now prevailing in MENA region indicate that both short term and long term economic and energy policy goals are achievable.
What should be the "appropriate entry strategy" for MENA nations to build and compete effectively in renewable energy? At present, an on the ground solar power plant delivers usable electricity for 5-6 hours in a day between sunrise and sunset, assuming there is no cloud cover. However, a space power plant can deliver up to 20 hours of electricity depending on choice of power satellite orbit. While technology for ground solar power plants has matured, space solar power technology could take 15-20 years to become viable. Hence, a phased approach to renewable energy policy for the region is suggested:
1. Phase-I (First 5 years):
a. Upgrade existing ground solar power plants by building integrated solar power-seawater desalination plants. Such plants couple the DC power output of a standard photovoltaic solar power plant to variable frequency DC motors of a standard reverse-osmosis based seawater desalination plant. This enables use of large scale fresh water storage as a cost-effective medium to store day-time solar electricity for 24-hours water supply without batteries.
b. Produce solar fuels, mostly hydrogen, using ground solar power plants, from natural gas (now being used to produce electricity and desalinate water) in an environmentally friendly manner; then use the hydrogen to run generators and produce electricity at night time when solar power is not available
2. Phase-II (between 5 and 7 years): Use profits from Phase I to expand solar power to low income markets in West Asia. Target new geographic markets for exports of solar energy and develop new channels of distribution for solar energy.
3. Phase-III (beyond 7 years) Use profits from solar energy exports of Phase II to progressively substitute domestic oil and gas based electricity by locally affordable electricity generated by ground and space-based solar power plants.
4. Phase IV (When SSP becomes commercially available)
i. Use space based solar power to export electricity within and outside MENA region
ii. Use hydrogen fuel generated from solar fuels as fuel of outer space transportation.
iii. Spin off technology from the space transportation segment of SSP mission could be used for hypersonic air passenger transportation to further enhance the use of international airports in the region like Dubai
Such an integrated energy, water and environment policy approach deploying new technologies would pave the way to total solarization of MENA region. It will have the potential to resolve the water crisis and address environmental issues globally. It will also be a fitting tribute to scientist, humanitarian and former Indian president Dr Kalam, who had envisioned UAE to take a leadership positing with India for research, development and implementation of a green energy solution.
R. Gopalaswami obtained an (M.S) Degree in Rocket Technology from the Cranfield University Institute of Technology, U.K. in 1970, and completed the Advanced Management Program of the Harvard Business School, U.S.A in 1984. His experience covers a very wide spectrum of operational, managerial and strategic assignments with the Indian Air Force, the Defence R&D Organization, in Industry, and in Academic Institutions. He was a lifelong friend and colleague of Dr Kalam. He can be reached at email@example.com