Here comes the sun: space-based solar power is on the horizon

GlobalData Energy 28 January 2021 (Last Updated January 28th, 2021 15:57)

Space-based solar power (SBSP) is edging closer to becoming a reality and, in the long term, could help complete the transition to green energy sources.

Here comes the sun: space-based solar power is on the horizon
Credit: Diyana Dimitrova, Shutterstock.com.

Space-based solar power (SBSP) is edging closer to becoming a reality and, in the long term, could help complete the transition to green energy sources.

The idea of lasers in the sky was the exclusive domain of science fiction novels or scheming James Bond villains. Now it is becoming a reality, and, unlike the movies, it can be used as a force for good, helping tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing the world.

In its Tech, Media and Telecom (TMT) Predictions 2021 report, GlobalData identified sustainability as a key theme for 2021.

Transitioning to clean sources of energy is perhaps the most pressing item on the agenda to limit global warming to the 1.5 °C target set by the Paris Agreement. The energy sector is the world’s number one pollutant, accounting for over 30% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions.

SBSP could be a solution to the energy problem. As GlobalData predicts in its report, Earth-facing activities in space will experience significant growth in the next decade, increasingly affecting our everyday lives and contributing to solving complex challenges.

Use of satellite based solar reflectors

But how would energy from space be collected? The optimum solution is using huge mirror-like solar reflectors installed on satellites in orbit which will concentrate energy from the sun onto solar panels. These, in turn, turn the energy into electromagnetic radiation which is beamed back to Earth in either laser or microwave form by an antenna. Finally, a rectifying antenna on the ground collects the waves or electromagnetic radiations from lasers and converts them back into electricity to be distributed to the grid.

This technology has several advantages over normal solar power. Firstly, it eliminates downtime due to bad weather and nighttime. In an average winter month in Europe, only 3% of sunlight reaches Earth, while satellites in space could gather energy for 99% of the year.

Secondly, it bypasses the problem of energy storage as the continuous stream of power from the sun would allow the energy to be beamed down directly when needed. Finally, the light in space, unfiltered by the atmosphere, is much stronger. For this reason, according to energy matching service Greenmatch, SBSP could generate 40 times as much energy as Earth-based solar power.

Technological advances meet commercial reality

Despite its many advantages, there is one major drawback to this alternative source of energy: the astronomical cost. While in theory the technologies needed to make SBSP a reality already exist, the cost of production, launch, and assembly (which would most likely have to happen in space), currently make it commercially unviable. The technological advances made in recent years, however, have significantly lowered launch costs, raising hopes for the future.

Currently, the key players in SBSP include the Chinese, US and Japanese governments of China, which are all eager to secure access to a clean, unlimited power sources. China, for example, is planning on sending the first functioning prototype into space as soon as 2022, with intentions of making SBSP commercially viable by 2050.

SBSP could be the route to ensure Earth’s energy needs are met in the long-term, with the first country to achieve it gaining a geopolitical and commercial advantage. That’s arguably a better story than even a Bond movie!

To ensure you are aware of GlobalData’s predictions for the most important technology themes disrupting your industry in 2021, join our TMT Predictions 2021 webinar on Thursday 28 January at 3pm (GMT).