Russia’s murderous rampage through Ukraine has sent EU nations scrambling in a race to cut energy ties with the rogue nation, and it looks like space solar power will be part of the plan. Among other developments, the US Air Force is readying an update on its research into the topic, and earlier this month UK science minister George Freeman expressed support for orbiting solar harvesting platforms that beam solar energy down to Earth anywhere, any time.
At this writing, Russia seems intent on murdering as many people in Ukraine as it can. Millions are fleeing and in need of assistance. To help refugees from that conflict and others, contact the International Rescue Committee or other reliable aid organizations.
Many Reasons For Space Solar Power
The idea of space solar power seemed a little off the wall when it first sailed across the CleanTechnica radar in 2013, but the very next year the US Naval Research Laboratory weighed in with this observation:
“What if you could capture solar power in space, then send it down to Earth? What if you could launch the hundreds of modules for such a satellite, then use robots to assemble the entire array in space? You could power a military installation, a city — even on a cloudy day, even at night,” the lab enthused.
If you caught that thing about nonstop solar energy, that’s part of the attraction. Another part is avoiding land use conflicts with nature conservation and food supply here on Earth, and yet another part is electrifying communities and operations without having to build new transmission lines or energy storage infrastructure.
Emergency response could also come into play, as orbiting solar harvesters could continue working throughout storms and other catastrophes, and if you can think of any more reasons drop us a note in the comment thread.
US Air Force Hearts Space Solar Power
In 2015, the California Institute of Technology picked up the space solar power ball and ran with it, with a $17.5 million assist from Northrup Grumman to establish something called the Space Solar Power Initiative. That was apparently supplanted by the Space Solar Power Project, funded through an anonymous $100 million donation from an individual who turned out to be Donald Bren, chairman of Irvine Company.
CalTech announced Bren’s contribution last year, by way of providing an update on the project.
“Our research solves the fundamental challenges associated with implementing space solar by integrating ultralight and shape accurate structures with high efficiency photovoltaics and large scale phased array power transmission into a two dimensional scalable, deployable spacecraft,” CalTech observed.
As of last year, the project was on track to launch a 6×6-foot prototype-phase test for the solar power generators and radio frequency wireless power transfer.
Meanwhile, the US Air Force has been hot on the trail. By 2020 the Air Force Research Laboratory was partnering with Northrup Grumman on a project called SSPIDR, which is short for Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research.
Just a few months ago, in December of 2021, the partners let slip word that a key element of the project has passed its initial tests. Called the “sandwich tile,” the specially tailored PV cell is integrated with a layer of components for the radio frequency conversion and beam-forming end of the operations.
Next Steps For Solar Power From Outer Space
That brings us up to last week, when the Air Force Research Laboratory announced that it will showcase a suite of programs, including the space solar power project, at its the 37th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which will start on April 4.
For those of you wondering whatever happened to the newly minted Space Force and its cadre of Guardians, the lab clarifies that “AFRL supports both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force, seamlessly working high priority research areas across the lab, meeting operational needs and delivering warfighting technologies to Airmen and Guardians.”
The Deputy Technology Executive Officer for Space Science and Technology, Dr. Andrew Williams, further emphasized that the Space Force Guardians are firmly under the lab’s wing.
“Our ability to operate freely in space can no longer be assumed, and AFRL is tasked with delivering cutting-edge technologies to Guardians,” he said.
With that in mind, AFRL emphasizes that orbiting solar harvesters meet its mission of developing mature technologies for the warfighter.
“Ensuring that a forward operating base receives power is one of the most dangerous parts of a ground operation. Convoys and supply lines, which are major targets for adversaries, are the usual methods to supply power,” the lab explains.
“To use the solar power beaming system, a service member would simply set up a rectifying antenna to gain access to power, eliminating costly and dangerous convoys. Essentially, AFRL is enabling the relocation of those supply lines to space, which could save countless lives,” they add.
AFRL also points out similarities with GPS, which started life as a military asset and is now used to great effect by civilians everywhere, every day.
UK Eyeballs Unlimited Solar Power From Space
No wonder the UK wants some of that space solar power, too. Last fall the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy released an independent report that makes the case for investing in space solar power. The report focused on space solar power as an achievable element in UK’s 2050 climate-saving goal, and it also raised the issue of energy security.
“Global energy demand is forecast to double in the next 30 years. At the same time, climate change risks additional pressure on land and resources, with all the geo-political consequences that may flow from this. There is an urgent need to develop new sources of clean energy that are sustainable, affordable, secure and scalable,” the authors emphasized.
In widely reported remarks earlier this month, UK science minister George Freeman affirmed his government’s support for space solar power R&D, though apparently his remarks were not connected to any new funding programs.
In an eerie coincidence of timing, on September 10 Russia and Belarus launched a massive military “exercise,” and the space solar power report was released on September 27. It’s reasonable to assume that the authors of the report knew nothing of Russian President and alleged war criminal Vladimir Putin’s alleged plans for sending his troops to overrun Ukraine and kick out its elected officials with the evident aim of gaining access to the country’s considerable land and energy resources through a friendly puppet government.
However, Putin has sent plenty of signals about geopolitical consequences to Europe and other business partners for years. If annexing Crimea was not enough, there were plenty of atrocities in Georgia, Chechnya, and Syria to go around.
Finally the message sunk in, but it will take time for Europe to cut its energy ties to Russia. The EU is turning to liquid natural gas for a heavy assist, at least for the near future.
Natural gas stakeholders in the US and elsewhere are doing the happy dance for now, but the long term outlook does not look nearly as bright. Near-term competition from wind, solar and green hydrogen stakeholders is already emerging, and a competitive space solar power industry could help push the LNG genie back in the bottle, eventually.
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Image: SSPIDR space solar power beaming project courtesy of US Air Force Research Laboratory.