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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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Space-Based Solar Power Could Become A Reality

  • Solar space projects aim to collect uninterrupted solar radiation using satellites, reflecting rays onto collectors and beaming energy back to Earth.
  • Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. are making considerable strides, with successful tests and heavy investments in developing space-based solar technology.
  • With the potential to generate consistent electricity irrespective of earthly conditions, space solar power can revolutionize the renewable energy sector.
Space

There’s been story after story about the potential for space-based solar power this year, as the ambitious energy plan gains the backing of prominent figures, tech companies and academic institutions. What seemed a pipedream just a few years ago now appears increasingly viable as the rise in investments in green technologies expands the potential for innovative clean energy projects immensely. 

Solar energy generation from space is expected to work by using solar panel-equipped, energy-transmitting satellites to collect high-intensity, uninterrupted solar radiation. Using giant mirrors, solar rays could be reflected onto smaller solar collectors before being wirelessly beamed to Earth in the form of either a microwave or laser beam. 

In May, a public-private Japanese partnership announced plans to run a trial of a solar farm in space as early as 2025. The industry-government-academia project led by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is supported by researchers at Kyoto University. This is just one of several groups worldwide with ambitious plans to generate solar power this way. An increasing number of companies have been testing new technologies to see if solar power converted into microwaves can be beamed to receiving stations on Earth. If successful, this would mark a huge breakthrough in renewable energy as we could harness the power of the sun, day and night, irrespective of weather conditions. 

However, achieving this will be no easy feat. One of the biggest hurdles is the extremely high costs involved with setting up a solar space project. Installing giant solar panels, big enough to generate 1 GW of electricity, could cost over $7.2 billion. Despite the high cost, researchers in Japan are growing increasingly optimistic about the viability of the project, particularly since the Japanese group already carried out successful tests of microwave power transmission horizontally in 2015 and vertically in 2018. Naoki Shinohara, the scientist leading the experiments, stated “If we can demonstrate our technology ahead of the rest of the world, it will also be a bargaining tool for space development with other countries.” 

But Japan is not the only country making progress in space-based solar power, as the U.K. also invests heavily in new projects. In June, it was announced that a group of U.K. universities and tech companies were to receive government funding of almost $5.3 million to develop space-based solar power. One of the recipients is Cambridge University, which is developing ultra-lightweight solar panels that can withstand the high radiation levels in space. Meanwhile, Queen Mary University of London is developing a wireless system to safely beam the solar power to Earth. 

The country’s Energy Security Secretary Grant Shapps stated, “We’re taking a giant leap by backing the development of this exciting technology and putting the UK at the forefront of this rapidly emerging industry as it prepares for launch. By winning this new space race, we can transform the way we power our nation and provide cheaper, cleaner and more secure energy for generations to come.”

According to a government-commissioned independent study in 2021, space-based solar power has the potential to generate as much as 10 GW capacity a year by 2050, enough to meet a quarter of the U.K.’s electricity demand. If successful, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero expects it to create a multibillion-pound industry, as well as 143,000 new jobs. 

The concept has now gained the public backing of Tim Peake, the first European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut from Britain to visit the International Space Station. He said that space-based solar power is “becoming absolutely viable”. This is thanks to the falling price of launching heavy cargoes into orbit. The ESA has been exploring the potential of space-based solar power plants, having commissioned two concept studies this year. It expects to present a business case to the EU by as early as 2025. 

This year in the U.S., researchers at the California Institute of Technology claimed to have successfully transmitted solar power to Earth from space for the first time. They launched a prototype spacecraft named MAPLE, short for Microwave Array for Power-transfer Low-orbit Experiment, in January. Ali Hajimiri, the professor leading the project, stated “Through the experiments we have run so far, we received confirmation that MAPLE can transmit power successfully to receivers in space.” He added, "We have also been able to program the array to direct its energy toward Earth, which we detected here at Caltech. We had, of course, tested it on Earth, but now we know that it can survive the trip to space and operate there.”

Recent innovations in space-based solar power in various parts of the world are making the seemingly far-fetched concept appear increasingly viable. If successful, it has the potential to advance the renewable energy sector significantly by providing a stable source of electricity, day and night, using the power of the sun. 

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By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com 

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Leave a comment
  • fredric longabard on September 23 2023 said:
    And I thought "pie in the sky" was a joke.
  • GeorgeWalchuk on September 24 2023 said:
    Energy to launch into orbit and transmission efficiency and repair cost will kill benefit of 24 hour power at 33% higher efficiency. Quixotic concept !
  • DoRight Deikins on September 24 2023 said:
    And we can run it with pure AI! Once it's up and running, it can be programmed to not only send microwave energy to planet Earth, but 'disable' any climate change nay-sayers or carbon-based CO2 emitters on the planet.

    Actually, we will most likely find it cheaper to build the 'plants' on the moon and ship them into position from there.

Leave a comment




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