One evening during the winter of 1610 something changed forever. The sky was calm over Padua when a man named Galileo did something that would later be acknowledged as an act of historical importance: he took his telescope, which, until then he had only used to view distant objects on Earth, and he pointed it towards the Moon. In one moment he undermined the millennia-old philosophical differentiation between the fleeting Earthly realm and the perfect and unchanging celestial region.
Today we have completed Galileo’s revolution: there is no longer a separation between events in space and on Earth, and even our daily lives are made easier in large part by the activities of artificial satellites in orbit.
Space technologies for sustainable energy
Even back in the 1960s NASA received numerous letters asking why it was investing so many resources in space exploration. Since then space agencies haven’t stopped explaining how the technology that was developed for these missions can be of help in our daily lives on Earth, from telecommunications to biomedical research, so much so that these solutions are now referred to as the “space economy.”
One addition to this list of reasons is a matter of particular importance, although at the beginning of the space age it might well have seemed like science fiction: making planet Earth more sustainable by observing it from above. For example, satellite observations can produce notable innovation concerning renewable energies, identifying the sites best suited for constructing plants, monitoring them once they are in operation, predicting production and, if necessary, offering indications on how to manage them more effectively. At the same time, in the case of the building industry, it is possible to identify the best sites on which to construct sustainable buildings with an extremely low environmental impact, but it is also possible to study how to optimize thermal insulation and minimize the effect of “heat islands” which cause rises in temperatures in urban areas.
Moreover, with satellites it is possible to monitor infrastructures and traffic flows, and therefore organize a more efficient system of mobility, in such a way as to reduce energy wastage, improve air quality, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and reduce travel times.
In order to take full advantage of all of these opportunities satellites alone are not enough: it is necessary also to integrate various frontier technologies, such as drones, the Internet of Things and Big Data. And in these sectors the space agencies cannot do everything alone.
Enel and the “space renaissance”
Today we are experiencing a new space race. Numerous missions are being prepared: plans are being made to return man to the Moon, and even land on Mars in the coming years. The first space race, involving Yuri Gagarin’s Sputnik and Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind,” centered on just two superpowers – the USA and the USSR. The second space race is notable for the presence of other countries, such as China, and, perhaps even more significantly, the growing role of private companies, like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but also numerous companies that are taking part in space exploration with their own technological innovations.
These include Enel, which was one of the first energy companies to get involved in exploring the space sector. In 2019 we signed a partnership agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) covering various areas: first and foremost, the circular economy, and in particular the use of data from the sector integrated with other technologies for monitoring public lighting, building efficiency and traffic flows, with the goal of improving mobility and cities’ environmental sustainability.
Other fields of application for this partnership include the use of satellite data applied to electricity distribution networks in order to reduce technical risks (like interference from vegetation with overhead electricity cables), optimize the grids and improve the quality and security of the energy supply service.
Within this context, on our Open Innovability® crowdsourcing platform we have launched two challenges to foster the development of solutions using space technology for tackling important sustainability issues. Both are being financed by the European Space Agency. The first aims to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans and to recycle the material in line with the principles of the circular economy; the second concerns two different fields: predictive maintenance of infrastructure and reducing emissions in the transport sector.
“The partnership with the ESA gives us the opportunity to further expand the scope of the energy transition thanks to the application of space technologies to the energy sector,” explains Ernesto Ciorra, Enel’s Chief Innovability® Officer, who adds: “By promoting a plastic-free society and developing circular cities to manage exponential demographic growth, we are tackling what we call the global challenges of Innovability®.”
Enel’s energy on the Moon
Nor is Enel only working with the ESA: in 2019 it launched a partnership with Thales Alenia Space. This company specializes in solutions for satellites and orbiting infrastructure and is a key player in the most important scientific and exploration missions for the Universe. As part of the framework of this agreement, as of 2021 the Enel Group is involved in a project on behalf of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) to study a human base on the Moon, as part of the future missions in the ARTEMIS program, which is led by NASA and ESA.
Enel’s role will be to study solutions for producing, managing and storing energy on the Moon.
So, while space technology can be of help for Enel’s energy, Enel’s energy can also be useful for space missions. Also in this case, then, the technologies developed can find uses later on Earth, for example in the field of innovative solar panels, electricity storage systems, wireless transmission of energy and the use of open-air robotic devices.
These are all activities thanks to which our Group has established a stable presence in the sector. It’s an area that, from the time of Galileo’s telescope up until the latest satellite technologies, has become increasingly linked to life on our own planet.