Beaming solar power down to Earth from space? Don’t laugh. The idea — once written off as technically and financially unworkable — is being actively considered by several countries, including the US, China, Korea, Japan, and the UK. The European Space Agency is also involved. In January, the ESA said it would fund 13 of the 85 proposals it received after it put out a call for ideas related to space-based solar power (SBSP).
On its website, the ESA says, “By coming “close to the theoretical transmission efficiencies via electromagnetic waves (50–60%) … we could produce around 400 W of electricity per square meter on Earth receivers, which is about two to three times the amount we could receive from the same area of terrestrial PV panels.” One of the critical factors in favor of SBSP is that it operates 24 hours a day, which means — in theory — there would be no need for large battery storage installations and the energy beamed down from above would be continuous all day every day.
The UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy commissioned a study by Frazer-Nash Consultancy that was released in September 2021. Entitled Space Based Solar Power—De-Risking the Pathway to Net Zero, the study identified the following as drivers in renewed interest in SBSP.
- A new political will exist now as countries seek diverse technologies to decarbonize their migratory and reach net zero by 2050.
- The costs of commercial space launches have dropped off as private companies enter the market.
- New highly modular solid-state solar-power satellite designs such as SPS-Alpha and CASSIOPeiA have been conceived for high-volume commercial manufacture. This also lowers costs.
- Technologies required to make SBSP a reality have matured. These include high-concentration solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, wireless power transmission, and space robotics.
- Countries view their ability to provide unlimited affordable energy from space to any point on the planet as a way to leverage global influence, evidenced by the fact that not only Britain and Europe have recently renewed their interest but also the US, China, Japan, and South Korea.
That study found the levelized cost of energy from space-based solar power would be lower than most conventional thermal generation sources and only slightly higher than solar and wind power.
Space-Based Solar Power Initiatives
According to The Hill, China expects to launch a satellite by 2028 that will serve as a testbed for SBSP. Based on the lessons learned from that first satellite, it will launch an updated satellite about 2 years later. After a series of upgrades, the Chinese government hopes to be sending down commercially affordable power from a space station that will by then produce as much energy as a current nuclear plant by 2050. China’s Chongqing Collaborative Innovation Research Institute for Civil-Military Integration has been power-beaming experiments and is building an SBSP testing facility, reports the Journal of Petroleum Technology.
The US Air Force is planning the launch of its own “power-beaming” test mission — which it sees as a means to power the remote combat bases of the future — by 2024, according to Space.com. As so often happens in the US, the impetus for this research is to find ways to power military operations. More consequences were suffered in the disastrous war in Iraq by people delivering fuel to forward operating areas than in actual combat.
The Frazer-Nash study noted that “a $180 million defense research program lead by Northrop Grumman and the US Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) to develop and demonstrate technology including lightweight sandwich panel PV/RF modules, and lightweight extendable mirrors, under the SSPIDR (Space Solar-Power Incremental Development and Research) Project,” is underway. The US Naval Research Lab has also conducted power collection and conversion experiments in space using the X-37B space plane. NASA has commissioned its own study.
The UK has declared that two SBSP systems have demonstrated that beaming energy from space is technically possible. The SPS-Alpha designed by Mankins Space Technology in the US is one such system. The other is the CASSIOPeiA (constant aperture, solid state, integrated, orbital phased array) developed by International Electric Company in the UK. Both are modular, solid-state designs that can be mass manufactured.
A recent article in Forbes Note that microwave-beaming systems could transmit up to 1 GW of energy to terrestrial receivers, enough to power a large city, whereas laser systems produce 1 to 10 MW per satellite and so would require a network of hundreds of satellites.
If you are ready to dismiss this recent resurgence of interest in space-based solar power as just another wild and crazy idea that has no hope of ever going anywhere — don’t. Keep in mind that the cost of solar panels has been cut by 99% since they first became available. The first LED lights were so faint, no one ever thought they would be good for anything useful. Wind turbines of 40 years ago look like toys compared to the enormous structures coming online today.
Never say never, in other words. There are issues, of course. Tiny asteroids and space dust could play havoc with the satellites. Solar winds could deflect beams of microwaves away from the receiving equipment on the ground. Repairs and maintenance in space are difficult and expensive. Clearly, the age of unlimited energy from space is not just around the corner. But nor is it something that is centuries away.
The big challenge is keeping the nations of the world from blowing each other up while we wait for the blessings of space-based solar power to arrive. Not only that, the impact of a warming planet will continue to create upheavals in human society. It’s pointless to beam huge amounts of electricity to the American southwest, for example, if there is no water to allow people to live in Phoenix, Las Vegas, and southern California. Maybe there are more important matters for humans to find solutions to than space based solar power.
John Mankins is a former NASA scientist who was at the forefront of research into SBSP in the 1990s before the idea was abandoned. He is also the person behind the SPS-Alpha SBSP system under consideration by the UK government. He tells Forbes, “There’s always the geopolitics issue. Because when you’re at an equatorial orbit, geostationary Earth orbit, you can see a great deal of the Earth below you. For me, it’s challenging to envision how there would ever be agreement to allow such a thing.”
Perhaps some research into how humans can live together cooperatively on a sustainable planet could be just as important — if not more so — than learning how to transmit solar power from satellites in space.
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