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Is Space-Based Solar Power The Future?

Many governments around the world are steering away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy sources to meet growing energy demand. This has led to renewed interest in utilising space-based solar power (SBSP) as part of their energy usage strategy.

What might have seemed like science fiction a few decades ago – harvesting the sun’s rays, directly from space, to power homes and businesses – might become a reality in the future.

While we have, in recent years, seen the increased installation of commercial solar panels at businesses and solar PV systems at homes across the world, solar power still only supplies an estimated 5% of the globe’s electricity.

By encouraging more companies to install commercial solar panels – and with the possible introduction of SBSP into the national grid – many UK businesses could soon make renewable energy their go-to source of energy supply.

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What Is Space-Based Solar Power?

SBSP refers to “installing” solar panels in space, which harvest the Sun’s energy and convert it into electricity.

Attached to focusing antennas, the solar panels absorb the sun’s rays, which are converted into microwaves. The microwaves are then transmitted to receiver stations on Earth. At these receiver stations (also known as rectennas) and Earth-based plants, the microwaves are converted into electricity and delivered to consumers.

This renewable energy technology holds many benefits but, because it’s costly and challenging to set up, might take a while before being introduced into the energy mix.

Recently, the UK Energy Security Secretary, Grant Shapps announced that the British government pledged £4.3 million in government funding to encourage further research into the SBSP sector.

To meet the goals set by the government’s Net Zero pledge, the race is on to have the first demonstrator SBSP system in orbit by 2030.

Working in partnership with other nations, the hope is to have the first SBSP plant operational in 2040. The aim is to deliver a substantial portion of the UK’s energy needs – using SBSP – into the national grid by the mid-2040s.

Who Invented Space-Based Solar Power?

The NASA engineer, Peter Glaser, first researched SBSP in 1968.

Glaser studied the use of a solar power satellite system that floats in space and collects and converts the Sun’s rays into microwave energy. This energy is then beamed to Earth, to receiving antennas (rectennas), where it’s then supplied to consumers.

Glaser was granted a patent for this method of transmitting power in 1973.

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SBSP can be used in different ways:

  • Solar thermal: Solar thermal panes absorb light and heat up and transfer this heat to a fluid. It’s used to heat, for example, water geysers and swimming pools. The microwaves from SBSP can, therefore, be relayed to thermal panels for heating purposes.
  • Concentrated solar power: Using mirrors to concentrate the Sun’s rays, heat is generated and transferred into a carrier fluid. This heated carrier fluid generates high-pressure steam which is used to power turbines. Microwaves generated by SBSP can, similarly, be used to power turbines and generate electricity.
  • Photovoltaic solar: This method – used in ground-mounted solar panels and business solar panels – uses solar PV cells to convert sunlight into electricity. An SBSP installation also uses photovoltaic cells on its solar panel system to capture the Sun’s energy which is then transmitted to Earth.

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It’s No Longer Science Fiction

SBSP has been under investigation since the 1970s and, in recent years, many countries – including China, India, Japan, the US, and the UK – have allocated more funding to investigate the technology’s feasibility.

SBSP is based on existing scientific principles with no breakthroughs that have to be discovered or developed to make the technology a reality.

The telecommunications satellites currently orbiting the Earth already operate using these principles (using moveable spaced-based solar panels to generate their energy).

The biggest challenge currently faced is establishing and building a large enough SBSP facility in outer space. To be economically viable, the SBSP stations need to fit a sufficient number of solar panels to capture enough of the Sun’s rays, which can then be converted into microwaves.

What Are The Advantages of Space-Based Solar Power?

This green energy technology holds many benefits:

01 SBSP can generate more energy:

Scientists estimate that solar panels in SBSP installations can generate up to 13 times more energy than the average ground-mounted solar PV system. SBSP can generate gigawatts of power, while an Earth-based solar panel system can only generate a certain amount of electricity during peak sunlight hours.

02 SBSP provides electricity 24/7:

Unlike solar panels that can only generate electricity during daylight hours, solar panels in SBSP systems can generate electricity 24/7. The Sun always shines in space, and because SBSP systems won’t compete with the weather conditions, they’ll always be up and running.

03 SBSP can be beamed anywhere:

SBSP does not need wires or power lines to deliver energy. Collecting satellites can also be redirected to receiving satellites that need energy. Should a certain rectenna need immediate energy, during times of peak load power needs, the microwaves can be directed to that site almost immediately.

04 SBSP stations are safe from Earth-based conflicts:

Unlike power plants, gas pipelines, and solar plants on Earth, SBSP plants can’t be easily targeted and destroyed in times of conflict.

05 SBSP infrastructure is less obtrusive:

Unlike other solar panels, SBSP infrastructure would be less destructive and obtrusive to the environment.

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What Are The Blockers?

As with any other solar PV plants, so too do SBSP installations have challenges.

1. Size concerns:

The solar panels and components of SBSP plants will take up a lot of space in space. To hold these solar panels in place would require building a structure a lot bigger than any other man-made structure currently in space.

It is estimated that each focusing antennae – housing the solar panels – would be around 1.5 kilometres in width. In comparison, the International Space Station – currently the largest man-made structure in space – is only 108 metres long.

2. Cost implications:

Building a SBSP plant would cost an enormous amount of money.

It would also require the launch of several rockets to transport solar panels, equipment and manpower into space to build SBSP plants. This would, inevitably, also add to carbon emissions and increase mankind’s carbon footprint.

3. Inefficient energy conversion:

Microwaves, as they move through the Earth’s atmosphere, lose less than 5% of their energy. But, converting these microwaves into electricity brings about huge energy losses. The bulk of these losses will be experienced at plants and rectenna that receive energy from the SBSP plants.

4. Could be damaged by meteorite strikes:

The solar panels used in SBSP stations would face the constant risk of being hit by meteorite showers and space debris. This could damage the solar panels and create even more space debris.

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What Are The Uses Of Space-Based Solar Power?

Space-based solar power, like traditional solar power generators, has many different uses:

  • Solar electricity
  • Solar water heating
  • Solar heating
  • Solar ventilation
  • Solar lighting

Reducing their business carbon footprint and carbon emissions is a concern for many UK companies.

One solution is to migrate away from using non-renewable energy sources for their energy needs.

Whether you own a small or medium-sized enterprise or a large business, owners are advised to do a business energy comparison. This helps you gauge how your business’s gas and electricity consumption and utility bills compare with other, similar-sized businesses. This would also help you to cut down on energy use to reduce energy bills.

Another way to reduce electricity usage is to switch to solar power for businesses. Installing commercial solar panels at your business premises is an easy way to cut down on energy costs and reduce electricity bills.

Commercial solar panels cost a lot less these days, while the maintenance costs and installation costs of a commercial solar panel system are a lot more affordable.

Contact a business energy broker for advice on which commercial solar panel installation would best suit your business needs and budget.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the other benefits of space-based solar power?

Unlike nuclear power, SBSP does not have any dangerous byproducts. And, unlike fossil fuels, using SBSP is a lot less damaging to the environment. Using solar panels for business purposes in conjunction with SBSP is a great way to do your part for the environment.

How long do solar panels last?

Solar panels (used in a household solar PV system and commercial solar panels) can be used for up to 25 years before they start degrading or losing energy production capabilities. After the 25-year mark, these ageing household and commercial solar panels can still convert sunlight into solar energy, albeit at a less efficient rate than new solar panels.