Desperate times call for desperate measures. The brutal war of aggression in Ukraine has caused Europe to search for alternatives to cheap unnatural gas from Russia. One option might be space-based solar power — a system of solar panels in geosynchronous orbit that would transit abundant electricity down to the Earth below.
Those panels would be super efficient because there would be no water vapor, clouds, or bird droppings to block some of the sun’s energy. Also, there would be no NIMBY fights about where to put them. Another significant benefit is such systems can supply electricity from space almost 24 hours a day, eliminating the intermittency issue and the need for energy storage.
There is only one problem with space-based solar power. The technology to make it a reality does not exist and there is no guarantee the idea is even possible outside the realm of science fiction. And yet, science fiction is what inspired humans to land on the moon and create nuclear power, so perhaps there will be a place for SBSP in the future.
According to Space.com, the European Space Agency will ask its member states to fund the Solaris program at a meeting later this year. Solaris would explore the potential of space-based solar power and assess technical feasibility, benefits, implementation options, commercial opportunities, and risks associated with the technology.
The ESA describes the Solaris program as a response to the current climate change crisis on Earth because it is a potential source of clean, affordable, continuous, abundant, and secure energy. The agency expects a decision on whether to move forward with Solaris by 2025. “We have the main building blocks already, but let me be clear: for the project to succeed, much technology development and funding is still needed,” says Josef Ashbacher, head of the ESA.
Space-based Solar Power would be an important step towards carbon neutrality and energy independence for Europe. Two recent independent studies strongly recommend investments to advance the SBSP technologies needed to address our growing energy crisis: https://t.co/aQImYF3fyN pic.twitter.com/VJ8z5lCLnp
— Josef Aschbacher (@AschbacherJosef) August 16, 2022
Everybody Wants In On Space-Based Solar Power
The concept of space-based solar power first emerged in the 1960s, but has recently been taken up by a number of countries. The UK expressed its interest in an SBSP system earlier this year, while China plans to begin testing systems that are already in orbit by the end of this decade as a prelude to gigawatt-level systems that could be deployed by mid-century. NASA is also interested in studying SBSP, while a billionaire-backed project at Caltech in Pasadena is already working on hardware for harvesting solar energy collected in space. The US Navy is involved in research as well.
While promising a source of clean, continuous energy, space-based solar power faces many technological, economic, policy, and hardware challenges. Then there is the challenge of distributing all that electricity efficiently once it arrives at a ground station. This is really the stuff of science fiction today, but so were space travel and nuclear power not so long ago.
Two Reports Say SBSP Is Feasible
The ESA commissioned feasibility studies from the Frazer-Nash consulting group in the UK and Roland Berger in Germany. In a press release, Frazer Nash space business manager Martin Soltau said, “Innovation in new baseload energy technologies will be essential to deliver on the government’s commitment to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050. Our assessment has shown that Space Based Solar Power can deliver sustainable and affordable energy for the UK. Given bold leadership by the Government, Space Based Solar Power can be developed in time to make a substantial contribution to our energy needs well before 2050.
“Our report recommends that the Government incorporates space based solar power into relevant policies, including Net Zero pathways and the National Space Strategy. A staged technology development and demonstration program should be initiated with urgency which would see an orbital demonstrator by 2031, and an operational system by 2040. Collaboration with international partners will be necessary and the Government has a leading role in shaping the regulatory environment for realizing space based solar power safely and sustainably.”
The Roland Berger report finds SBSP to be technically feasible and economically competitive with other sources of renewable energy. Senior partner Martin Hoyer says, “Space-based solar power can contribute to the decarbonization of the European energy supply by providing high-density renewable energy to locations where it is needed the most.”
Space-based solar power is a tantalizing idea, but there may be some drawbacks. First, all technology is capable of being used for good or evil. A screwdriver is a marvelous tool, but it can also be a deadly weapon. The prospect of high energy beams headed toward the Earth from space should give us pause. What if those systems come under the control of lunatics? A second consideration is that ideas like this always give cover to fossil fuel interests to claim they can continue selling their death-dealing products because we can always clean up their mess for them later.
Certainly the idea of SBSP should be studied, assessed, and analyzed to see if it can actually deliver on its promise. Perhaps there is merit to the idea, but those countervailing factors should be given due consideration as well. We once thought asbestos was a miracle material and that nuclear energy had no significant drawbacks. We should be careful what we wish for — we just might get it.
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