Forget about solar panels on rooftops, power plants and wind turbines that mar our landscape – space-based solar energy may be closer to reality than we thought.
Tests and inspections have been completed on a new tower that could pave the way for space-based solar power in China, according to researchers at Xidian University.
The announcement means we are one step closer to a concept long considered a potential key to solving the energy and climate crisis facing Earth.
Scientists carried out a successful test on June 5 that was – according to a statement published by the university – the “world’s first full-system, full-link solar power plant”.
The 246-foot (75 m) tall structure made of steel can be found on Xidian University’s southern campuses, equipped with five different systems designed to further the eventual development of space-based solar energy.
In recent years, other nations have also set their sights on space-based solar energy. In March, the UK government considered a £16bn (€18.72bn) proposal to build a solar power station in space.
In the US, a $100 million (€95.93 million) partnership was made to provide advanced technology for its own space-based solar energy system.
Japan has also made the field part of its future space exploration vision.
Science fiction or reality?
The hope of this venture is that, in theory, satellites could continuously collect photons from the sun – converting the energy into photovoltaic cells and wirelessly transmitting that electricity as microwaves back to receivers on Earth.
While this might seem like an undertaking straight out of a science fiction novel, the concept of space solar power is not new, noted Jovana Radulovic, head of the School of Mechanical Engineering and Design at the University of Portsmouth.
“Engineers and scientists from the last century have come up with these ideas,” she told Euronews Next.
The theory first appeared in the 1960s, proposed by Peter Glaser, an aerospace scientist and engineer who was also president of Power from Space Consultants.
In theory, a space-based solar power plant placed in Earth’s orbit would be fruitful, due to being illuminated by the Sun 24 hours a day, allowing it to continuously generate electricity.
This gives the technology a significant advantage compared to solar power systems placed on Earth, which can only produce electricity during the day and are heavily dependent on the weather.
As global energy use is expected to increase by nearly 50% by 2050, this method of power generation could play a crucial role in helping to meet growing demand and address the climate crisis.
Space-based solar energy comes with significant challenges
As promising as the technology may seem at first glance, this space-based solution to real-world problems also poses significant challenges.
First, and arguably the most obvious, is the cost barrier. As mentioned above, nations have already invested hundreds of millions in space-based solar initiatives – and it’s for good reason.
Most systems are modular, meaning that multiple solar modules are assembled by robots once in orbit. This type of assembly requires transporting all elements to space, which is difficult and expensive — with an even greater impact on the environment.
Another problem comes with the space constraint itself. To transport the energy, the electricity would have to be converted into microwaves before being sent back to Earth.
To do this, you need to build a huge antenna on the surface to collect the microwaves and convert them back into electricity.
“That would require a huge receiver – we’re talking kilometers in diameter,” added Radulovic.
The size of the antenna depends on the intensity of the transmitted microwaves; a smaller, more viable and economical antenna would increase the intensity of microwaves.
However, if the microwave signal strength is excessive, it can cause damage to objects and animals exposed to the beam.
It’s also worth mentioning that there would be at least 10% power loss due to conversion and reconversion, making the power source not as efficient as it appears at first glance.
Likewise, huge batteries would be needed to store solar energy on Earth, which is already a big challenge for the terrestrial solar industry.
Valuable investment in the future?
It would be a challenge to ensure that solar panels also survive in space. Their vulnerability to space debris means they would need constant maintenance and would also need to be hardened against radiation unlike Earth.
All these factors would significantly increase the cost of projects, questioning whether space-based solar energy is really worth it.
“That’s why we’re paying close attention to what Space X is doing,” Radulovic told Euronews Next.
“The idea of being able to reuse the component using the same rocket to launch things into space over and over again – it’s clearly very cost-effective.”
“Unless we see a massive reduction in the cost of all the components needed to establish this solar space station, it won’t happen as quickly as we think. This is something we need to focus on,” he added.
However, despite its challenges, this sci-fi method of power generation could be a valuable investment in our future.
“Sooner or later, the technology will become more cost-effective because there will be more research into it – when that happens, we can talk about the potential to build [space-based solar technology],” Radulovic said, noting that at this point we are “a long way from that dream come true.”
As the current energy and climate crisis hits, it is evident that drastic measures are needed to protect future generations and the planet. While the technology has its short-term pitfalls, the long-term benefits of space-based solar power are promising.
Technology is also a harbinger of exciting research and development opportunities. Looking to the future, we are likely to see this (and similar) space technology play an important role in global energy supply.