It might sound like the plot of a sci-fi film, but we could be harvesting energy from solar panels in space as early as 2035.
According to the Space Energy Initiative (SEI), a collaboration of industry experts and academics helping nations to achieve Net Zero, Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP), could offer a reliable and affordable source of clean energy to complement intermittent renewables. As global warming and the energy crisis dominate daily headlines, the promise of new technologies that could help fully decarbonise the UK economy by 2050 seems almost too good to be true.
Straight out of science fiction – how is it done?
The SEI is currently hard at work on a SBSP project called Cassiopeia, which will place a constellation of very large satellites in a high Earth orbit. Once deployed, the satellites would collect solar energy, convert it into high frequency radio waves and beam it back down to a rectifying antenna on Earth, which would convert the radio waves into electricity. Each satellite would deliver around 2GW of power into the grid, which is comparable to the power output of a nuclear power station.
A bright idea – but why the fuss?
The 17th annual Global Carbon Budget released during the United Nations COP27 climate summit, laid bare how the world's increasing reliance on fossil fuels threatens the goals of the Paris Agreement. If the world continues to emit carbon dioxide at current record-breaking rates, we could hit the global warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures in just nine years.
With rising coal and oil consumption driven by the loss of natural-gas shipments from Russia and renewed air travel, the need for clean, sustainable sources of energy is more glaring than ever. The SEI says the potential for harvesting space-based solar energy is almost unlimited – it could theoretically provide all of the world's energy in 2050.
The severity of the energy security crisis means, fantastical as it might sound, we need to start seriously contemplating the possibility of building commercial power stations in orbit.
Point taken – now what's needed to make this a reality?