A solar power station in space measuring several kilometres in length may sound like something from a science fiction film, but the reality is that this idea could well be operational and supplying much of the worlds energy requirements within less than 20 years.
Space based solar power stations are not a new idea, in fact they have been researched since the 1970âs.
Back in 2009 the Californian state regulators granted approval to the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Solaren Corp. to start creating a solar based power plant in space. Solaren, founded by veterans of Hughes Aircraft, Boeing and Lockheed, plans to deploy a free-floating inflatable Mylar mirror one kilometre (0.62 miles) in diameter in 2016. This will collect and concentrate sunlight on a smaller mirror that in turn will focus the rays on photovoltaic modules, according to the companyâs patent.
The Japanese government is also planning a space based solar power station, scheduled to be operational in 2030. Not to be outdone, Europeâs largest space company EADS Astrium, hopes to develop infrared lasers capable of transmitting the energy from these space stations to earth based receiver stations by 2020.
There are many attractions to creating spaced based power stations;
â¢ Higher collection rate: In space the radiation of solar energy is unaffected by the filtering effects of the ozone. Consequently, the level of solar radiation, and therefore energy, available is approximately 144% of that attainable on the Earth's surface.
â¢ Longer collection period: Orbiting satellites can be exposed to solar radiation for 24 hours a day, whereas surface panels can only collect for 12 hours a day at most.
â¢ Out in space, away from atmospheric gases the panels would not be subjected to any interference from external elements such as cloud cover, other weather events, or plant and wildlife.
â¢ Flexible power distribution: The collecting satellite could possibly direct power via a laser to different surface locations depending on the demand levels.
A new 248 page report from the International Academy of Astronautics, which was obtained by Reuters, represents the most significant assessment of the viability of the concept yet undertaken. It is expected to conclude that it is technically feasible for large satellites to transmit usable energy to earth using either lasers or microwave transmitters.
Obviously constructing large structures in space is hugely expensive, but by focusing on reducing the weight of such structures, the number of rocket launches can be reduced. After the initial set-up costs the plants should be able to produce cheap, clean energy for many years.
According to Reuters, the paper provides little precise detail on how the technology could be deployed, nor on the estimated cost of new solar power stations. However researchers working on the project told the news agency that costs were likely to be lower than first thought as solar space stations could take advantage of cheaper disposable launch vessels.
The report recommends that governments help subsidize private sector firms to fund further research into the technology, arguing that the risks associated with such new technology are too great for private firms to undertake prototype projects on their own.
According to businessgreen.com the US National Space Society is scheduled to hold a news conference in Washington later today to promote the new report.
By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com