In the quest for sustainable and limitless energy sources, scientists and engineers are looking beyond the Earth's atmosphere to harness the untapped potential of the sun through Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP). This revolutionary concept, once confined to the realm of science fiction, is rapidly transitioning into a feasible and promising solution for our energy-hungry world.
The Genesis of Space-Based Solar Power:
The idea of collecting solar power in space and transmitting it to Earth was first proposed by renowned science fiction author Isaac Asimov in 1941. However, it wasn't until the 1960s that scientists like Dr. Peter Glaser began seriously exploring the concept. Glaser's pioneering work laid the foundation for SBSP by suggesting the use of solar panels in space to capture sunlight and transmit the energy via microwaves to Earth.
The essence of SBSP involves placing solar power satellites in orbit around the Earth, where they can continuously capture solar energy without being affected by atmospheric conditions or nighttime. These satellites would consist of large solar arrays to convert sunlight into electricity. Then, different transmission technologies are being explored to wirelessly transmit the collected energy from space to Earth:
S-Band Transmission: S-band transmission involves the use of radiofrequency waves. While effective for shorter distances, it may face challenges in efficiently transmitting power over longer distances.
Microwave Transmission: Microwave transmission is a leading candidate for SBSP. It involves converting solar-generated electricity into microwaves, which are then beamed to receiving stations on Earth (Rectennas). Microwave transmission has the advantage of being able to cover longer distances.
Laser Transmission: Laser transmission is an emerging technology, with potential advantages such as high energy density and directional precision. Lasers could be used to transmit power over vast distances with minimal energy loss.
Potential to Decarbonize the Energy Sector:
SBSP holds immense promise in revolutionizing the energy sector and contributing to global decarbonization efforts:
Continuous Energy Generation: Orbiting above the Earth's atmosphere, SBSP can generate power continuously, unaffected by weather conditions or the day-night cycle. This constant energy supply could complement intermittent renewable sources like solar and wind.
Reduced Dependence on Fossil Fuels: By tapping into the virtually limitless solar energy available in space, SBSP could significantly reduce our dependence on finite and environmentally harmful fossil fuels.
Global Energy Distribution: SBSP has the potential to provide energy to remote or underserved regions, contributing to global energy access and security.
The SOLARIS program from ESA:
The goal of SOLARIS is to prepare the ground for a possible decision in 2025 on a full development programm by establishing the technical, political and programmatic viability of Space-Based Solar Power for terrestrial clean energy needs.
It would, through a limited initial investment, undertake studies and technology developments, in partnership with European industry, to mature the technical feasibility and assess the benefits, implementation options, commercial opportunities and risks of Space-Based Solar Power as a contributor to terrestrial energy decarbonization. SOLARIS will also address potential environmental, health and safety issues and challenges related to regulation and international space policy coordination.
Through SOLARIS, Europe will extend the technological state-of-art in a diverse set of key technologies relevant to applications both on Earth and in space, such as high-efficiency solar cells, wireless power transmission and robotic in-orbit assembly. It’s aim is for Europe to become a key player – and potentially leader – in the international race towards scalable clean energy solutions for mitigating anthropogenic global warming.
Credits from ESA (https://www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/Space_Engineering_Technology/SOLARIS)
Current status of SBSP
Our CEO recently participated in the 2023 International Conference on Energy from Space jointly hosted by the UK Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, the UK Space Agency and European Space Agency - ESA. Here some updates about the topic:
Companies like Space Solar are developing interesting concepts. The CASSIOPeiA project (which stands for Constant Aperture, Solid-State, Integrated, Orbital Phased Array) was introduced in 2018 and could achieve base-load power 24x365, with a solar array that will orbit at an altitud of 36.000 km and should produce around 2GW.
The Imperial College London and EDF produced insightful studies to assess how electricity from SBSP could be integrated into the electricity grid alongside other lowcarbon energy sources. These studies covered topics such as Rectennas hybridization, Hydrogen cogeneration and use of Offshore Wind Farms infrastructure among others.
Worth to mention the European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency (EISMEA) PathfinderProgram managed by Stella Tkatchova supporting early projects between TRL 1 to 4, including SBPS.
Cost of Earth to Space (GEO) must sit below 1.000 USD/kg, not yet there but SpaceX and others are reducing the gap.
Generally speaking the #TRLs goes from 1 to 4, being the current state of the entire SBPS around TRL3. Most of the projects evaluate performing the transmission by S-Band, Microwaves or Laser, all under study.
SBPS projects will be massive infrastructure deployments, involving 10.000 Tons and above 2 million componentes, today not fully available yet.
Robotic #IOSM capabilities will be a must. Interesting for new startups!
AI optimization tools for design, operation, assembly, cybersecurity, etc.
Grid interconnection not a big deal but must be evaluated deeper.
Ongoing tests for Space to Space SBSP transmission between satellites.
PPA and Project Finance readiness under discussion, Public-Private consortium coming.
Even if the technology is in it early stages of development, today we have reached major advancements in areas to push forward SBPS such as new solar panels, robotic construction, modularization, microwaves transmission, satellite to satellite tests and smart grids integration that put us closer than ever to see SBPS made a reality. It is not easy, and will take decades and hundred billion Euros, in the best case scenario, but considering that just decarbonizing Europe could cost 1 trillion Euros, worth the shot.
It is also valuable see a lot of cooperation between Governments, Corporations, Scientists and Startups, also another sign of change. The first barrier was reducing the cost of goods in orbit, done thanks to SpaceX and other private companies. Scientists were bold enough to keep working on this subject and trying to pass barrier over barrier. Corporations (the case of EDF among others) are showing interest on the topic, and countries like UK, Japan, USA and Korea are leading efforts. We foresee much more public private cooperation, more Corporations showing interest and hopefully, we will see a real demonstration by 2050.