The Application of Space Technologies in the Energy Sector

The Application of Space Technologies in the Energy Sector


“All space projects push the frontier of technology and are drivers of innovation”

-Martin Rees

The start of the cold war brought a golden age for the development of space technologies. The fight for technological supremacy gave rise to accelerated development in this field and quality research produced advanced and independent space technologies surpassing the then contemporary non space science field research. Space technologies have developed exponentially from a few state-run space agencies to about 2000 commercial space companies dealing with it and about 8,100 space objects launched since 1957. Humanity has benefited tremendously through space applications in terms of communication, positioning services, security purposes and earth observation activities. The socio-economic applications too are immense and ever growing.

There are space related activities in the domain of energy and climate that positively affect us and have made our lives easier. The earth observation satellites (ISRO’s Kalpana-1 and INSAT-3A) for climate monitoring and weather prediction help us monitor greenhouse gases, mapping of solar radiation, wind and tidal energy statistics that help us in numerous energy sector applications. Using the high-resolution imaging technologies through the earth resource observation, we can look out for illegal extraction of petroleum products. The space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services have revolutionised the electrical grid technologies. For example, the Smart grid technology integrates all grids in a very effective and robust way that reduces the production of greenhouse gases due to less energy consumption and the grids can be traced and located in real time using PNT services. The space technology spin offs in the energy sector are not only futuristic but also has paved ways to efficient, reliable and user-friendly energy-based applications. These technologies can be applied to the energy sector through solar photovoltaic, hydro, wind, energy grids (Smart), pipeline monitoring, carbon (capture, utilisation, storage), geothermal, ocean and bio based sub-fields.

The space spin off technologies are technologies that are produced (with the intention of space exploration) by state owned space agencies that have applications elsewhere apart from the space sector. These technologies are transferred to the industries and the academia for commercialisation and further research work. They are also a means apart from commercial satellite launches for earning money by selling technology and related products for these space agencies. The NASA, for example in 2019 transferred many technologies in the field of energy and environment. Their ‘Electric Bacteria Clean Waste Water, Generate Power’ spinoff technology is a really innovative method of using an anaerobic microbe named ‘Shewanella’ that can clean dirty water and alongside also generate electricity. In their ‘Building Monitoring System that provides insights for sustainability’ project, the aerospace technology is used to build a building that produces energy more than it consumes. NASA has been responsible for about 1000 such spin off technology transfers until now. Similarly, India’s ISROtoo has ventured into this domain of transferring space technologies for commercial purposes. In the field of energy and climate, ISRO’s spin off technologies include: (1) PARAS 3D which is a simulation software that has applications in wind tunnel simulation and hence wind energy generation (2) The Indigenous Geographical Information System (IGIS) is a Geometrics application software that uses GIS, Remote Sensing, Image Processing, 3D modelling, 3D animation and Real Time Location Based Services that is used for Terrain Analysis and hence can be used for petroleum extraction purposes (3) The Automatic Weather Station (AWS) consist of compact Data Transmitter, Data Logger, Crossed Yagi antenna, GPS, Solar Panel and Meteorological sensors like air, temperature, relative humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind direction, wind speed, solar radiation, rain gauge, etc that transmit data every hour using a INSAT Satellite. They provide information immediately on weather and non-conventional energy parameters. The ESA(European Space agency) too, over the ten years has spun off 150 technologies from the space sector into non-space industries. Due to dedicated pipelined and result oriented plans, the space agencies have been pioneers in the field of advanced and innovative technologies that have alternative usages. But in comparison to NASA, ISRO’s commercial arm New Space India Limited (replacing its predecessor Antrix) seems to be lagging behind in terms of capitalising on the spin off technologies. Diversification and re-bundling of the products along with more budget allocation would be the key to expand NSIL’s business.

Even though the space technologies are serving us abundantly in our everyday lives, the future applications of these technologies in the energy sector are immense. Commercial space agencies are planning to place several thousand satellites in the LEO (low earth orbit) that will enhance durability, capacity, efficiency and security of various communications and mapping services to customers on earth by drastically cutting on latency and energy consumption. This will benefit the end users of the energy sector to receive crucial energy related data in real time with better accuracy. The contemporary space tech continues to use fossil fuel as a form of propellant, with advancements in this sector and the need for more efficient and long-lasting fuel, it would be possible to substitute the non- renewable energy sources with hydrogen and oxygen propellant that is electrolyzed using water. The upside of this is that the energy source doesn’t emit carbon dioxide  on consumption and is a green alternative to long distance air travel. One of the fantastic uses in the energy domain would be of the Space Solar Power, in the space the sunlight is unfiltered above the Earth’s atmosphere (about 99%) and hence by using the space solar power we can capture ample of sunlight which can later be converted into laser or microwaves by beaming it to the Earth’s surface where receivers convert the energy into electricity. In fact, Chinahas already announced the plan to place a solar power station in the orbit by 2050. This would make China the first nation to harness solar power in space and bringing it back to earth.

The contributions of the space technologies in the energy sector have been extensive and immense. The socio-economic and intellectual implications of these spin offs have made our lives easier and more productive. The future benefits too are many but the humanity must remain cautious as the other meaning for spin off is ‘by product’ and by products can be harmful too.

The author is a Master's student at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.