As the world struggles to combat climate change, we look for new ways to safely and effectively generate power. New research now points to a new and exciting opportunity in the way of solar-powered space stations . It might sound futuristic, but the United Kingdom is now investing heavily in research into space-based solar power (SBSP) systems that could change the way we view power generation.
With solar space stations, solar generators are placed in space and send the energy back to Earth. The problem with common solar generators is that they only create energy during the day. This wastes a lot of time that could otherwise be used to create power. With space generators, the solar panels can orbit the earth in a way that lets them have constant sunlight, and they continue to collect power 24/7.
There are several benefits to having solar panels in space, but the first step is naturally to find a way to get those solar panels to space. Unsurprisingly, this is a big challenge to making solar space stations a cost-effective solution. Currently, the cost of sending the solar panels into space limits the feasibility of solar space stations on a large scale. However, space travel costs have been decreasing over recent years, so if these costs continue to drop, solar space stations could become cost-effective in the future.
Once the solar panels are in space, they are able to collect much more solar energy than solar panels on Earth. This is simply because the solar rays don’t have to go through the Earth’s atmosphere, which normally absorbs around 50% of the solar energy before it reaches solar panels on Earth. So by putting the panels in space, you get a significant increase in the amount of solar energy hitting the panels.
A big issue with solar power on Earth is that the sun is only shining on the panels for a part of the day. So to fix this issue, you would have to store excess electricity in batteries or use another power source (e.g. fossil fuels) so you can have power when the sun isn’t shining. In space, there is no nighttime so solar space stations can time up their orbits so that it is always “high-noon”, where the solar panels are receiving the most energy.
So solar panels in space can collect a lot more solar energy in space than panels on the ground. Now how do you get that energy and valuable electricity down to Earth? Solar panels on Earth can simply convert that energy to electricity and then connect into the grid. Instead, solar space stations have to send the energy wirelessly. This is the other big challenge facing solar space stations.
Currently, the most promising options for wireless energy transmission are through laser beams or microwaves. In both options, the solar space station would convert the electricity produced by the solar panels into either laser beams or microwaves and then send them down to a power station on Earth that would convert them back into electricity.
This wireless energy transmission could solve another issue with solar panels on Earth: solar panels (and other renewable energy sources) are limited geographically. Solar panels are great in warm areas, like California, that receive a lot of solar energy. But in many other regions of the world, solar panels aren’t a feasible option because the regions don’t receive enough solar energy. With wireless energy transmission, you could send that energy to nearly anywhere in the world that has an appropriate power station.
Spaceships and laser beams might make you think that solar space stations belong in science fiction, rather than reality. But the United Kingdom is taking solar space stations seriously and see it as a potential solution to combat climate change. The UK’s 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.”
In November 2020, the UK government commissioned a study to take a detailed look at the engineering and economics of solar space stations. Fraser-Nash will be leading the study and Martin Soltau, the Space Business Manager at Frazer-Nash, outlined what the study will involve:“Frazer-Nash is studying the leading international solar power satellite designs, and we will be drawing up the engineering plan to deploy an operational solar-based solar panel (SBSP) system by 2050. We are forming an expert panel, composed of leading SBSP experts and space and energy organizations, to gain a range of industry views. We will compare SBSP alongside other forms of renewable energy, to see how it would contribute as part of a future mix of clean energy technologies.”
While solar space stations won’t be deployed in the next couple of years, this study should provide great insight into whether solar space stations could be an affordable and clean energy source that could help combat climate change.
The future of power generation is not as far as you might think. When it comes to the way we generate power, the world is always on the search for new ways to move forward. The United Kingdom is researching ways to use space-based solar generators to solve the power problem and reduce the carbon footprint. They are researching the costs and ways to reduce those costs, but they are also looking into ways to implement the solar stations in space and to collect the power effectively.
Space-based power stations were once a thing of science fiction, but they could become a reality before you know it. If you are interested in space-based solar panels, keep an eye on the news for updates.