Earth, sun, star and galaxy. Sunrise over planet Earth, view from space. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

UK Space Agency backs space-based solar power station project

Image credit: Ievgenii Tryfonov/</a>

The UK Space Agency and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are funding research into space-based solar power (SBSP) systems that could beam ‘emission-free electricity’ down to Earth.

The SBSP systems would use very large solar power satellites to collect solar energy, convert it into high-frequency radio waves, and safely beam it back to ground-based receivers connected to the electrical power grid.

Such systems are an idea first conjured by science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov in 1941 in his science fiction short story ‘Reason’ where it was revealed a station a mile across was used as an “energy converter” to gather sunlight and beam it across the solar system.

The technology is currently being studied by other nations due to advances in lightweight solar panels and wireless power transmission technology. This, together with lower-cost commercial space launch, may make the concept of solar power satellites more feasible and economically viable. 

Now the UK has joined the likes of the US and China to explore whether this renewable technology could offer a resilient, safe, and sustainable energy source.

Artist impression of Solar power satellite delivering power to the UK in the daytime.

Artist impression of a Solar Power Satellite delivering power to the UK in the daytime.

Image credit: UK Space Energy

The study, led by the engineering and technology consultancy Frazer-Nash, will consider the engineering and economics of such a system – whether it could deliver affordable energy for consumers, and the engineering and technology that would be required to build it.

According to Frazer-Nash, to make the project viable, one of the biggest issues to overcome is assembling the massive satellites in orbit, which has not been done before at this scale.

Dr Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency said: “The Sun never sets in space, so a space solar power system could supply renewable energy to anywhere on the planet, day or night, rain or shine. It is an idea that has existed for decades but has always felt decades away. 

“The UK is growing its status as a global player in space and we have bold plans to launch small satellites in the coming years. Space solar could be another string to our bow, and this study will help establish whether it is right for the UK.”

Historically, the cost of rocket launches and the weight that would be required for a project of this scale made the idea of space-based solar power unfeasible. But the emergence of privately-led space ventures has brought the cost of launch down dramatically in the last decade.

Martin Soltau, space business manager at Frazer-Nash outlined what the study will involve, saying that experts would need to explore new technologies to provide clean, affordable, secure, and dependable energy for the nation. “SBSP has the potential to contribute substantially to UK energy generation and offers many benefits if it can be made practical and affordable.”

Soltau said that Frazer-Nash is studying the leading international solar power satellite designs, and we will be drawing up the engineering plan to deploy an operational SBSP system by 2050. They are also forming an expert panel, composed of leading SBSP experts and space and energy organisations, 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,” he said. 

Artist impression of Solar power satellite providing power to the UK during night time.

Artist impression of a Solar Power Satellite providing power to the UK at night.

Image credit: Frazer-Nash Consultancy

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, prominent research institutions and government agencies are focusing new money and attention on novel approaches to reduce global warming.

In 2019, Britain passed an important milestone, with more electricity generated from sources like wind, solar and nuclear power, that produce almost no carbon dioxide emissions, than from carbon-emitting fuels like natural gas and coal.

According to the World Resources Institute – a Washington-based non-profit that tracks climate change – Britain has reduced carbon dioxide generated in the country by about 40 per cent, which is more than any other major industrialised country.

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