‘The Sun never sets in space’: UK government considers space-based solar power

Solar Power Satellite in geosynchronous orbit delivering power to the UK. Image: Frazer-Nash Consultancy

The UK government has commissioned a new study to look at the feasibility of space-based solar power (SBSP).

Originally featured in the work of science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov in 1941, as the cost of solar panels and space travel continue to fall a number of nations including the USA, Japan and China are looking into the possibility of beaming clean energy down from space.

In theory, a SBSP system works by collecting energy using very large solar power satellites that then convert it into high-frequency radio waves and beam the energy down to ground-based receivers on earth, which are connected to the electrical power grid.

Dr Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said “the Sun never sets in space”, therefore renewable energy could be delivered anywhere on the planet, “day or night, rain or shine.”

“The UK is growing its status as a global player in space and we have bold plans to launch small satellites in the coming years. Space solar could be another string to our bow, and this study will help establish whether it is right for the UK.”

The Frazer-Nash Consultancy is leading the study, and will look at whether it could be possible to deliver affordable energy for customers through a SBSP system, exploring both the engineering and economic challenges of such a technology.

It will evaluate the leading three SBSP concepts; the USA SPS Alpha concept, the UK CASSIOPeiA concept and China’s MR-SPS concept. The inventors of the first two concepts – John Mankins (USA) and Ian Cash (UK) – are supporting the study.

Previously, a solar system in space would have been far too expensive to be considered, but with lightweight solar panels and wireless power transmission advancing rapidly a number of nations are now considering the technology. Additionally, the cost of commercial space launches has fallen with the emergence of privately-led space ventures dramatically impacting the price over the last decade.

As such, the concept of solar power satellites has become both more feasible and economically viable in recent years. Challenges still remain however, such as how you assemble the massive satellites needed in orbit, as this has not been done before at this scale.

Martin Soltau, Space Business manager at Frazer-Nash said that “decarbonising our economy is vital”, and that SBSP has the potential to contribute substantially to clean and secure energy generation.

“Frazer-Nash is studying the leading international solar power satellite designs, and we will be drawing up the engineering plan to deploy an operational SBSP system by 2050. We are forming an expert panel, comprised of leading SBSP experts and space and energy organisations, to gain a range of industry views.

“We will compare SBSP alongside other forms of renewable energy, to see how it would contribute as part of a future mix of clean energy technologies.”

Oxford Economic is also a partner in the project, and will provide additional insight into the economic assessment of the SBSP system as well as how it might benefit the UK economy.