Space-based solar power for the UK?

Posted: August 27, 2021 by oldbrew in Energy, government, innovation, net zero, satellites
Tags: , ,

Credit: NASA

The UK is not alone in what’s billed as a new space race. China for one is in the game. If you think you’ve heard it all before, you probably have
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Vast solar power satellites in Earth’s orbit, beaming energy back to Earth. It’s a serious idea for green energy from the UK Space Agency, say insurers MS Amlin.

In one of his early dystopian short stories, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov imagined a mile-wide space station that could “feed solar energy to the planets”.

Published in 1941, under the title Reason, it described a fantastical “energy converter” that gathered sunlight and beamed it across the entire solar system.

Some 80 years later, Asimov’s flight of fancy is starting to take real shape.

The UK government has commissioned research into space-based solar power systems that would use huge 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 electrical power grids.

While scientists have recognised the potential of space-based solar power for decades, the cost implications have always been out of this world.

But now, thanks to rapid advances in lightweight solar panels, wireless power transmission technology, and lower-cost commercial space launches (such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme), the budget could be within reach.

Space-based solar power is turning from a pipe dream into a plausible outlier for zero-carbon, affordable electricity that could, in theory, beam power to homes and businesses all over the planet, with just the North and South Poles beyond reach, due to the positioning of the solar power satellites in Earth’s orbit.

Asimov was able to construct the space station with a few strokes of his pen. The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has instead commissioned a feasibility study of the leading international solar power satellite designs.

It has tasked a British consultancy called Frazer-Nash with solving the engineering and economic challenges. What would it cost and when could it be operational? And how would the massive satellites be assembled in orbit – something that has never before been done at this scale?

The aim is to deploy an operational space-based solar power system by 2050, as part of a future mix of clean-energy technologies. There is no time to lose. The UK is in a space race with the US, Japan and China to unlock the secrets of extra-terrestrial solar power.

Robert Walters is head of industrial strategy for UKSA. “The study from Frazer-Nash will report to government shortly,” he told Chart magazine.

Continued here.
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Official press release, November 2020: UK government commissions space solar power stations research
‘Solar energy harvested in space offers the potential for an unlimited and constant zero carbon power source’

Space based solar power overview diagram [image credit: Frazer-Nash Consultancy]

  1. oldbrew says:

    The collector would be over a mile wide (1700 m.)

    A high tech coal-fired power station or two would be many orders of magnitude cheaper, and far easier to maintain. No fuel-thirsty rocket launchers required.

    Wikipedia says:
    Various SBSP [Space-based solar power] proposals have been researched since the early 1970s,[1][2] but none are economically viable with present-day space launch infrastructure.

    Ten disadvantages are listed here:

  2. Dan says:

    Rectenna? Sounds like something that goes where the sun don’t shine.

  3. ivan says:

    There is also a SF story in which one of the power satellites lost lock with the ground station and destroyed vast swathes of the country killing people, animals and insects and that was with a fully manned power satellite. Think of what can go wrong if it was controlled from the ground.

    The other thing they don’t mention is the amount of cooling of the planet with the hundreds of square miles of solar panels – ice age anyone?

  4. oldbrew says:

    Dan – the rectenna has a diameter of 5 km. 😎

  5. Saighdear says:

    Jings! what were we taught in school? Must have been the “wrong rubbish” from what we were TAUGHT, we wouldn’t be wasting time on so many of these dystopian ideas. Is this where the Artz n Fartz win over us Technic & Science ( as in Physics Chem & Biology) graduates? Why why why do we let these clowns get hold of the steering wheel and throttle?

  6. Gamecock says:

    The objective is to send heat energy out into space, not send it to earth. We have too much already (allegedly).

    I believe Professor Dr. Metz. is available to work on it, with backing from Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

  7. Graeme No.3 says:

    Solar panels in space? Won’t they get the full blast of solar eruptions and UV? And will they be shielded from gamma rays by the Earth’s magnetic field?
    What sort of working life do they envisage? A bit expensive if you have to do it again inside 10 years.

  8. Derek Colman says:

    That is one of the most scientifically illiterate ideas I have ever heard of. If you gather solar energy in space and beam it in whatever form down to the surface, you are adding energy to the planet which would not normally reach it..That will cause global warming. Energy is not destroyed when it is used, but transformed into another form of energy. In this case the energy harvested in space will end up as heat added to the atmosphere via electrical appliances, light bulbs and whatever else the power is used for. I’m no scientist, just that little boy who pointed out the king has no clothes on.

  9. Saighdear says:

    @Derek Colman, so you saw the king too – I don’t think our “leaders” are interested in little boys and what they have to say. By all accounts they are only interested in girls.

  10. MrGrimNasty says:

    The obvious concerns have already been stated.

    (1) Additional energy added to the earth system.
    (2) It’s also easily a possible weapon – and China is already well ahead of us.

  11. Dave Ward says:

    My first thoughts were “What about the tens of thousands of satellites in orbit around the Earth?”

  12. Gamecock says:

    Altitude division multiplexing.

  13. Bloke down the pub says:

    If the astronomy fraternity got their panties in a wad over Spacex’s Starlink satellites, heaven knows what they’d think about an object of that size in orbit.

  14. oldbrew says:

    Maybe some military spin-offs from this type of R&D.

  15. stpaulchuck says:

    more hucksters rent seeking from idiot pols. This thing will be about as viable and useful as a field full of windmills.

  16. gbaikie says:

    By 2050 AD is quite possible.
    But things have to done before this.
    The most important thing to be done is exploring the lunar polar region to determine
    if and where there is the most mineable lunar water.
    Mineable lunar water depends on many things.
    Major thing it depends on is how much lunar water can sell.
    And of course one can effect how much one can sell by charging less for the Lunar water.
    The biggest issue is how much can you sell, and that amount roughly is about 1000 tons
    of lunar water per year. Or per day 1000 / 365 = 2.74 tons per day.
    And might mean one is moving and processing more than 30 tons of lunar material per day.
    And with machinery this isn’t a particularly a large operation.
    But idea is not that one would start in day one doing this.
    Rather one might be wildly successful if mined 50 tons within the first 1/2 year of operation,
    but as work thru the problems, one tries double production every year. And if after 3 years
    it looks like within short time you could reach 1000 tons of lunar water per year AND sell
    this much within a year. Then you probably going to make a lot money. Of course one get
    to this point faster and sell more than 1000 tons of water per year.
    This should indicate why a government can not do this and should not even try to do this.
    I would there is %100 chance that government would fail, and more money they have the worse
    they fail and harms any chance of getting any lunar mined with the near term.
    So not wastes money {which could tens of billions} but it wastes everyone’s time.
    But if private sector tried to do this, at best, there is 50 chance of bankruptcy and it might
    have nothing to do with skill, it could be just matter of luck. But if 2 or 3 of them try to do it
    maybe 2 will make profit. Or the more which try, the better. They will learn from other guy’s
    failures. and competition sharpen their focus. And play a game against time. Time is money.
    More also just give more talent, more interest, more confidence, in general.
    One company does not much more chance than 1 government. But 1 company will begin first.
    Or to try simplify, one has sell lunar water somewhere around $500 per kg.
    And no government would do this, or want to do this. Or this is a start up, and governments don’t
    do start up. It’s also a mad growth business, which governments also don’t do.
    But a government can do some exploration- it done it and doing quite bit of that [though not enough or fast enough}.
    So NASA got to explore lunar polar region and see if it find the most mineable water, then NASA needs to start crewed Mars exploration. If NASA manage the task of putting crew on Mars by 2030 AD.
    Then Power Satellite are quite possible before 2050 AD.
    Though power satellite might start with Moon and/or Mars before starting on Earth. But could start within few years of each other. Or one is unlikely to have power satellite providing 50% of Earth electrical needs by 2050, but perhaps by 2080 AD.

  17. tom0mason says:

    “The aim is to deploy an operational space-based solar power system by 2050, as part of a future mix of clean-energy technologies. There is no time to lose. The UK is in a space race with the US, Japan and China to unlock the secrets of extra-terrestrial solar power.”

    Which fool signed the UK up for this green-wash nonsense?
    “There is no time to lose”? — Wrong there’s plenty of time!
    ” The UK is in a space race …”? — Who voted for this bunkum?

    Another politically motivated nonsense project desperately trying to add some substance into the FAILING “net zero” crap.
    Fossil fuels are the only reliable option, as most ‘developing’ nations have found out.

  18. Chaswarnertoo says:

    So why did we cancel Black Arrow? Was it because it was waycist?

  19. Phoenix44 says:

    Unless they somehow envisage being able to charge whatever they like for the energy produced, how are we in a “race” to do this? It is far more likely to be either a complete waste of money or to go far over budget and never recoup its costs. In dichotomy let somebody else try it and if it works and produces cheap energy we will buy that. This is once again the utter economic illiteracy of people who don’t understand the basics of wealth creation – nor how having lots of money but nothing to spend it on makes you poor.

  20. pochas94 says:

    Stay on natural gas as long as possible, then move to mars.

  21. Gamecock says:

    “How are we in a “race” to do this?”

    Boris is obsessed with Britain being World Leader™ at something. Anything.

  22. oldbrew says:

    China working on constructing miles-wide ‘ultra-large’ spacecraft

    The enormous constructions would eclipse the International Space Station – which China is prohibited from being involved with – and which only measures 357 feet end-to-end.
    Tuesday 31 August 2021

    The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) has recently published a five-year plan articulating the “urgent need” to invest in studies on space exploration equipment.

    This equipment could include enormous crewed spacecraft, orbital telescopes, and even space-based power plants that would be composed of modular components that would form megastructures once in orbit. [bold added]