When there is no sunset in space, it makes sense to wonder about the potential of unfettered, continuous access to space solar power energy.
Researchers have long studied the possibility of harvesting solar power directly from space to feed our energy-hungry planet and its population. Space solar power (SSP) as a renewable energy technology for Earth’s consumption has fascinated researchers who have been studying it for decades.
The idea of a solar power satellite beaming the solar energy back to antennas on Earth in microwaves was first conceptualized and patented back in 1968 by U.S. space pioneer Peter Glaser. Since then, over decades, the capabilities of space technology have advanced manifold. Today, the concept of constant, clean energy sounds achievable and with climate change looming over us, SSP might be the global energy security we need.
Moreover, the age of “New Space” is upon us. This revolution in the space industry has brought about innovative space activities and missions. The harnessing of SSP might soon become a reality. In fact, with current considerations, proposals and efforts, we might be looking at, not just a solar power satellite, but a solar power station itself.
One space-faring nation considering efforts in building a solar power station in space is the United Kingdom. The UK government is reportedly considering a £17 billion proposal, Space Based Solar Power, to build a satellite constellation to transmit round-the-clock SSP to Earth by beaming it to a fixed, receiving point on our planet, according to the Frazer-Nash Consultancy report. With the government’s commitment to accomplishing Net Zero by 2050, Space Based Solar Power is expected to support the country’s decarbonisation efforts in achieving its goals by establishing an operational solar power station by 2040.
Alongside the UK, NASA is in the works as well to assess the viability of space-based solar power through a short-term study. Although the study will not result in the planning or design of an infrastructure to capture SSP, it will allow the agency to reevaluate the feasibility of building such a facility based on technological and engineering concepts, policy implementations and financial costs. This initiative also seems to be majorly driven by the desire to achieve net zero in mitigating climate change.
China is also in the race to develop an enormous solar power station in geostationary orbit. In fact, back in 2008, the country classified SSP as a key research program. Now, they have planned to start the works soon with the Long March 9 rocket, launches of which will be used to aid the construction of the complex orbital infrastructure. The goal of the megaproject is to set up a space facility to support the continuous collection of solar energy, which will then be channeled back to Earth via microwaves or lasers. Small-scale electricity generation tests are due to begin in 2022, with expectations for the facility to handle megawatt-level power generation by 2030 and gigawatt-level generation for commercial use by 2050.
Despite the idea having been around for some decades, the need for climate change mitigation, meeting growing energy demands globally and nations clamoring to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 has pushed the space sector to seek a clean energy solution. On the other hand, years of research and development on the ground has led us to the harnessing of diverse and renewable energy systems, such as hydro and wind. But whether solar space power could be part of the solution to our energy problems, only time will tell.