The UK government has commissioned new research into space-based solar power (SBSP) systems that would use very large solar power satellites to collect solar energy, convert it into high-frequency radio waves and safely beam it back to ground-based receivers connected to the electrical power grid.
It is an idea first conjured by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in 1941 and is now being studied by several nations because the lightweight solar panels and wireless power transmission technology is advancing rapidly. This, together with lower-cost commercial space launch, may make the concept of solar power satellites more feasible and economically viable.
Now the UK in 2020 will explore whether this renewable technology could offer a resilient, safe and sustainable energy source.
Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “Solar space stations may sound like science fiction, but they could be a game-changing new source of energy for the UK and the rest of the world.
“This pioneering government-backed study will help shine a light on the possibilities for a space-based solar power system which, if successful, could play an important role in reducing our emissions and meeting the UK’s ambitious climate change targets.”
The study, led by Frazer-Nash Consultancy, will consider the engineering and economics of such a system ” whether it could deliver affordable energy for consumers and the engineering and technology that would be required to build it.
Martin Soltau, Space Business Manager at Frazer-Nash: “Decarbonising our economy is vital. We need to explore new technologies to provide clean, affordable, secure and dependable energy for the nation. SBSP has the potential to contribute substantially to UK energy generation, and offers many benefits if it can be made practical and affordable”.
The potential benefits claimed for space solar power include:
- Clean, zero carbon source of energy;
- Gigawatt levels of base load energy, provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year;
- Affordable cost of energy for homes and industry;
- Secure and resilient, and indefinite fuel supply;
- Relatively low land usage (compared to wind and terrestrial solar);
- Good integration with the existing power distribution grid;
- Could be developed and made operational by 2050, in time to make a substantial contribution to Net Zero;
- Rapid carbon pay-back period against the cost of manufacture and launch.
Some key challenges are:
- The scale of engineering, to build a satellite of that size in orbit
- The economics: can it really deliver the claimed Levelised Cost of Energy?
- International regulation of the radio frequency (RF) spectrum
Historically, the cost of rocket launches and the weight that would be required for a project of this scale made the idea of space-based solar power unfeasible. But the emergence of privately-led space ventures has brought the cost of the launch down dramatically in the last decade.
Frazer-Nash is studying the leading international solar power satellite designs, and we will be drawing up the engineering plan to deploy an operational SBSP system by 2050.