On Moonshot Thinking and Wireless Power Transfer in Post-Oil Algeria

Over a century ago, Nikola Tesla envisioned a future where electricity flows wirelessly across the planet. Unfortunately, our energy infrastructure did not change much and wireless power did not made much progress either. However, Tesla’s vision made sense then and continues to make sense today. In this post, I attempt to explore this “moonshot idea” in the context of the imminent energy transition in Algeria.

Context

Algeria has the 10th largest proven gas reserve and 16th largest proven oil reserve in the world. Algeria also produces about 2% of gas and 2.5% of oil consumed worldwide. Next to these encouraging numbers, we have some alarming ones: 95% of Algeria’s income comes from oil and gas exports, and oil production has declined by 12.5% over the past 10 years. Furthermore, while gas production remained almost constant over the past 10 years, local consumption has doubled. Today, 50% of gas produced is consumed locally.

Status quo

To get out of this situation, Algeria is now betting on its large shale gas reserves (world’s 3rd largest), but it will take at least 7 more years till the infrastructure is in place. Not only that, but the environmental cost that will be associated with this choice is very expensive. In fact, there is heated debate today in the US on whether americans should continue their efforts in this direction.

The Way Forward

The answer is probably in the geographic map: Algeria is the 10th largest country in the world, with enough solar exposure to supply the entire world with clean solar energy. Producing enough solar electricity to power the entire European Union (72% of oil and gas produced in Algeria is exported to the European Union) is technically a no brainer.

Do we have the technology today?

NASA and JAXA (the US and Japan’s national aerospace agencies) have already done extensive work to study the feasibility of producing solar electricity in space and beaming it to a ground station in the form of short-wavelength waves. Demonstrations of this approach of transporting power have been successful a long time ago (1970s) but over short distances (order of few km), but no demonstration has been shown yet over very long distances like Nikola Tesla thought possible. Although NASA seems to have abandoned the idea for economic reasons, JAXA continues to work towards installing a space-based solar power plant in orbit by 2030. In addition to JAXA, the Los Angeles based startup Solaren also aims at putting a solar power plant in orbit and has already signed a power purchase agreement with PG&E (7th largest electric utility in the US, and 18th largest in the world). The agreement will become effective in 2016.

Market Conditions

Europe very well realizes that meeting demand in the next few decades is rather challenging partly because of the increasing severeness of winters because of climate change. Europe also knows very well that oil and gas from Algeria will one day expire. In addition to this, because of the increasing demand for clean sources of power to mitigate the consequences of climate change, Europe is more interested than ever in clean energy resources. This means that Algeria is in a situation of losing its role as an energy supplier to Europe, and the only way to keep playing that role is to supply power that is: abundant, clean and at a low cost. Very large scale solar PV plants combined with wireless power transfer can potentially meet all those.

Verdict

Algeria is facing some daunting economic problems and risks its role as a major energy player. Technically, very large scale PV power plants combined with wireless power transfer stations seem to be a hard but a sound bet.

Energy & Computing @ Shell & GWU (Opinions my own)