Space-Based Solar Power: A New Solution to the Growing Energy Crisis?

Space offers the perfect climate for solar power production, and there's also zero chance of clouds or night affecting your power output. Plus, the sun's rays are more intense up in space, so you can get all the power you need.
Space-Based Solar Power

The European Space Agency is mulling over the possibility of investing in space-based solar power. A number of years ago, Elon Musk was quoted as saying, “It’s the stupidest thing ever.” this didn’t deter Josef Aschbacher, the director general of the European Space Agency looking further into the idea.

Ashbacher has proposed developing Europe’s first space-based solar power system to be constructed in 2025.

A report in Ars Technica says that the European Space Agency (ESA), which is made up of 22 different governments, will decide on the director’s plan in November of this year.

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ESA’s Role in Advancing Space Energy Technology

According to Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, it will be up to Europe, ESA, and its Member States to find the funding for this idea, which he thinks may solve one of the most pressing problems for people living on Earth of this generation.

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ESA Main Control Room by European Space Agency under CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Aschbacher intends to advocate for solar energy from space as a critical component of decarbonizing Europe’s energy sector to gain support and funding for the Solaris Program.

The European Space Agency (ESA) commissioned two separate cost-benefit analyses to be carried out by its Consulting groups in Germany and the United Kingdom. The studies published this week analyzed the benefits and expenses associated with developing solar power based in space.

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How exactly does solar power generated in space work?

Solar power generated in space is a conceptually straightforward idea. Satellites orbiting far above Earth’s atmosphere collect energy from the sun and turn it into electricity. Then, microwaves send this energy back to Earth, which is picked up by photovoltaic cells or antennas and turned into electricity for homes or businesses. 

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Space solar power by Chabacano under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Advantages of Collecting Solar Energy in Space

The primary benefits of collecting solar energy in space as opposed to on the ground are that there is no interference from the effects of night or cloud cover, and the solar incidence is significantly higher than it would be at latitudes similar to those found in northern Europe.

The Potential for Geostationary Orbit Energy Storage

Europe’s annual electricity consumption is approximately 3,000 Terawatt hours (TWh).

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The studies describe massive facilities in geostationary orbit that could meet approximately one-quarter to one-third of that demand for electricity.

The Energy Revolution: More satellites in space?

A terawatt-hour (TWh) is a unit of energy that can be used to express the total amount of energy, electricity, and heat that has been produced.

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Earth with Sunburst by NASA

A constellation of dozens of enormous, sunlight-gathering satellites located 36,000 kilometers from Earth would be required to make space-based solar power a reality. Creating and implementing these systems would have a price tag of several hundred billion euros. 

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Astronomers are already whining about their view of space being obscured by SpaceX’s satellites used for communications and broadband. What would astronomers think of even more satellites in space microwaving down electricity? 

The Quest for a Heavy-Lift Rocket

Each of these satellites would weigh more than ten times as much as the International Space Station (ISS), which has a combined mass of 450 metric tons and was assembled in low Earth orbit over more than ten years.

In the end, it will be necessary to perform hundreds, if not thousands, of launches with heavy-lift rockets to get these satellites’ components into orbit.

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Delivering one solar power satellite into orbit could take 4-6 years

Frazer-Nash, one of two consulting firms looking into the idea, said, “Using projected near-term space lift capability, like SpaceX’s Starship, and current launch constraints, it would take between 4 and 6 years to put one satellite into orbit.”

Frazer-Nash isn’t optimistic about the plan. They say that the current space-lift capacity would need to be increased by a factor of 200 if we were going to be able to launch the number of satellites that would be necessary to meet the maximum contribution that SBSP could make to the energy mix in 2050.

What does Elon Musk think?

The head of Tesla, Elon Musk, commenting on past studies of solar power from space, thinks, “It is the most idiotic thing that has ever been done. If there is anyone who ought to be enthusiastic about space solar power, it ought to be me. I am the owner of a solar company in addition to a rocket company“. Musk stated this a number of years ago.

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Musk said, “You are going to have a very difficult time even reaching the fifty percent mark. Just place the solar cell in the ground somewhere.”

And he is not the only one to think this way; according to physicist Casey Handmer, the cost of solar power generated in space is at least “three orders of magnitude” higher than that of energy sources generated on Earth.

Is getting solar power from space a really terrible idea?

Solar power from space is an interesting prospect for the future. In summary, you need large solar panels in space, a way to send power down to Earth, and a way to store the power for when people need it. One way to do this is to have solar energy beamed back to Earth via microwaves, which are captured by photovoltaic cells or antennas and converted into electricity for residential or industrial use. 

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Concerning future safety around electricity, not only will children have to be careful not to fly kites near overhead power lines, but if this idea comes to fruition, will people also have to navigate not getting zapped by microwaves carrying solar electricity from space? Maybe Musk is correct, and perhaps it is an idiotic idea.

Pros

  • Reduced emissions of greenhouse gases would have a positive impact on climate change
  • Increased energy security, since solar power is not reliant on terrestrial infrastructure
  • Increased production of clean energy, which would reduce reliance on fossil fuels

Cons

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  • Additional investment in infrastructure, such as space-based solar panels and satellites
  • Increased maintenance costs, as solar power is more sensitive to environmental conditions
  • Increased insurance premiums, as solar power is an unproven technology

What do you think? 

Do you think the ESA and Europe should pay for this?


Featured image credit: Suntower by NASA

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