WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Solar panels are affected by cloud and other environmental conditions like dust, but in space solar power stations would be free from these challenges and could generate alot more constant electricity.
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Following on from announcements and tests by NASA, the US military, as well as the Chinese who all want to create the world’s first space based solar power station that can beam gigawatts of energy from space back to Earth, the UK government is considering building a £16 billion, $21 billion orbital solar power station, a report from TheNextWeb reveals.
The government recently released its Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, which includes a section on space-based solar power. It is one of several potential solutions aimed at helping the country achieve its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
The Future of Energy 2050, by Keynote Speaker Matthew Griffin
The project, called the Space Energy Initiative (SEI), aims to set up the first power station in space by 2035. A UK Member of Parliament (MP), Mark Garnier, recently suggested SpaceX might take the proposed solar satellite up to orbit.
The UK isn’t the first to propose space-based solar power but it’s ambitions are an ambitious stake in the ground. Last year, China also announced it aims to test a technology that would harvest solar power from orbit before sending it down to a ground-based power station using a powerful, concentrated beam.
In a similar fashion, the UK government’s idea for a space-based solar power station will use a satellite equipped with solar panels that will transmit energy down to Earth through high-frequency radio waves. On the ground, an antenna is used to convert those radio waves into electricity before it is delivered to the grid.
Unlike solar farms on Earth, which are affected by weather conditions and generate electricity during the day, an orbital solar power station could fly in a geostationary orbit, meaning it would receive sunlight 24 hours a day. It could also be used to beam electricity to any point on Earth if need be, say for example to restore power to a disaster or war zone. But, before that happens there are several key obstacles that must be overcome before the UK’s orbital space station can become a reality.
Firstly, much like China’s system, tests are required to verify the safety of the technology. The main questions that need answering are how will such a high-frequency energy beam affect communications, air traffic control, and the well-being of nearby residents? China has so far conducted tests from altitudes of 980 feet (300 meters) using hot air balloons and soon aims to carry out 20km-range experiments using an airship.
The cost and emissions of sending such a large station to orbit is also a potential obstacle for a project that’s aimed at lowering the cost of renewables and achieving climate goals. This is where the UK hopes the world’s leading satellite launcher, SpaceX, will help out.
In an interview with the Daily Express, Conservative MP, Mark Garnier recently said, “They [the satellites] are going to be in the magnitude of tens of launches in order to get these things into orbit, and you have got to get the assembly unit up there as well.”
“This is where SpaceX comes in, with its really big launch capacity. You want big launches that could heavy payloads up into low-Earth orbit,” Garnier, who is also chair of the advisory board of the SEI, continued.
SpaceX is lowering the cost of satellite launches with its reusable first-stage technology, and it soon aims to lower it even further with its fully reusable Starship launch vehicle. The private space firm is unlikely to have any agreement in place with the SEI, however, the organization is still developing its technology and it is far from bringing any machinery to the launchpad. Still, the SEI aims to launch the first orbital demonstrator for a space-based solar power system by 2030.