Oxfordshire based Technology firm, Space Solar, says that giant solar panel farms could be in orbit and operational above the Earth by 2035. 

The Challenge 

There are significant energy and environmental challenges facing everyone, including the fact that global electricity demand is set to double by 2050. This, together requirements to swap fossil fuel reliance with new affordable, continuous, sustainable, flexible, and green energy generation technologies mean that the world is facing some major challenges to meet the Net Zero goal. 

Space-Based Solar 

Space Solar believes that its space-based solar power idea is a credible answer to these challenges and should take the form of 2km-long farms of solar panels, orbiting the earth and sending energy to receivers on earth in a similar way to how satellite broadband operates. 

Advantages Over Ground Based Solar 

Some of the main advantages of having the solar panels space is that there’s no footprint / no space taken up on earth (apart from the receivers). Additionally, there can be a constant (24/7) supply of clean solar power from space that is unaffected by the weather, seasons, or time of day. Furthermore, in space, solar panels could produce much more renewable energy than terrestrial equivalents for the reasons just given.

The lack of atmosphere and weather means that the sun’s rays are around ten times stronger in space than on earth. In fact, it’s been estimated that space-based solar would use half the land area of terrestrial solar farms (it would still need receivers), and one-tenth of the area of offshore wind farms but would produce 13 times more renewable energy

European Space Agency (ESA) Plan 

The idea of space-based solar has already received an endorsement in the form of the European Space Agency (ESA) unveiling its own plan for a space-based solar farm 36,000 km above the Earth. Announced last year, its SOLARIS proposal was intended as a way to test the feasibility of the concept of using giant solar panels to send solar energy (as supposedly ‘safe’ microwaves) to collecting ‘rectennas’ on Earth’s surface, so that Europe could make an informed decision in 2025 on whether to proceed with a space-based solar Power programme in the future (and to ensure that Europe becomes a key player). 

The UK government is also reported to be investing £5m in an international project called CASSIOPeiA, aimed at studying space-based solar power. 

Viable Technology 

Space Solar and the European Space Agency (ESA) both believe that the technology appears to be viable (as confirmed by independent government-led studies), and with the help of re-usable space launches could be economically viable too. The company says its goal is to be able to “deliver 20 per cent of Earth’s energy supply using 600 satellites”

Just 12 Years 

Space Solar believes that its space solar farms will be ready by 2035, saying on its website: “In 12 years, Space Solar will deliver an affordable, scalable and fully renewable new baseload energy technology” adding that that this will “create a safer and more secure world where clean energy is available to everyone, for the benefit of all life on earth”. 

Isn’t It Getting Crowded Up There? 

It’s estimated that there are over 3,300 operational satellites orbiting Earth at any one time as well as 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm, around 900,000 pieces between 1-10 cm, and around 34,000 of those larger than 10 cm. For large space infrastructures like orbiting solar farms, for example, debris mitigation and protection measure would, therefore, be a crucial consideration. 

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

The promise of viable nuclear fusion still appears many years away and the need to decarbonise our energy sources is becoming increasingly more urgent.

Replacing fossil-fuels with a sustainable and affordable clean alternative such as space-based solar must surely appeal as one of the cleanest ideas.

With plenty of room up there (provided space junk can be avoided), together with the promise of 24/7 supplies being conveniently beamed to earth from solar farms (which produce 13 times more renewable energy than earth-bound versions) does indeed sound attractive.

There seems to be some consensus that it is technically (and hopefully economically) viable and if, as Space Solar believes, it could be ready in 12 years, this could be one way to plug the gap in clean energy requirements before nuclear fusion reaches viability. Space-based solar must be as close to zero-carbon (apart from the rocket launches) as you can get and, if adopted at scale, could aid the electrification of countries around the world, change the energy industry, change fossil fuel industries, and potentially boost many of the world’s economies.

Space-based solar could, therefore, not only help us to take a step closer in the journey to meeting Net-Zero global targets but could provide the world with a safe and effective way to harness the natural energy of the sun like never before.

It’d probably be wise not to get in the path of the microwaves though.

By Mike Knight

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