At first sight, radioastronomy and renewable energy might seem strange bedfellows.
But there’s a growing realisation – or perhaps one should say a growing argument – that large radioastronomy facilities can become a driver for the use of renewable energy by remote communities across the developing world.
The logic was explained by Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro, of the Astrophysics Institute of Andalucía in Spain, speaking at a session on joint collaboration between Europe and Africa in radioastronomy as part of the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.
Verdes-Montenegro outlined several reasons why renewable energy technologies will be critical for major radioastronomy facilities such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which has been approved for construction in Africa and Australia.
“One factor is the need to provide large amounts of power to a concentration of instrumentation located far from any energy grid,” she said.
As a result, the SKA project is already looking at how it can exploit a range of renewable energies – such as solar energy and biomass – to produce electricity in situ.
It is also looking at developing new storage techniques, given that the telescopes will be operating 24 hours a day, and stored power will be required at night when solar energy is not available.
A second link to renewable energy, Verdes-Montenegro tells SciDev.Net, is that radioastronomy facilities require locations free from the radio interference that can be created by high capacity power lines.
“We have the chance to see SKA become the prototype of large mega-science infrastructures with zero per cent carbon footprints,” says Verdes-Montenegro. “It is a unique opportunity to explore the universe using green energy.”
But she is quick to point out that the astronomers will not be the only ones who would benefit. “There will also be an opportunity for remote local populations to get direct benefits through access to energy supplies,” she says.
“Eventually 1.6 billion people around the world – the number who are currently not on the electricity grid – could benefit from the development of radioastronomy facilities,” says Verdes-Montenegro.
European energy researchers may also benefit. She says that Spain – which has recently been at the forefront of developing renewable energy sources – is leading a consortium that plans to bid for the contract to provide power for the South African facility.
Both arguments will come in handy for those who say SKA will provide wide socio-economic benefits – a case that needs to be made convincingly if full funding for the project is going to be raised, which remains far from certain.
This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.