Wednesday, September 22, 2021
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Asimov’s vision of space-based solar power is more than science fiction

Solar power updates

In his short story “Reason”, published in 1941, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov described a universe in which humans harvest solar power in space to sustain life on earth. 

Eighty years later, and at the crux of a global climate emergency, the idea of capturing the sun’s energy with vast solar panels in space and transmitting it back to earth via microwaves could become reality. 

China, the US, Europe and Japan are all developing projects. Beijing even plans to have a working system by the 2030s, according to reports from China-based media. 

In September, the UK government will signal it too wants to explore the technology’s potential. It will publish findings of a new study examining how space solar might help Britain achieve a net zero economy by 2050. 

The report, prepared by consultants Frazer-Nash with input from European companies such as Airbus and Thales Alenia Space, concludes that space-based solar power is not only technologically possible, it argues that the lifetime cost per megawatt hour could be half that of nuclear power. 

With a single power station in Britain (Hinkley Point C) set to rack up costs of £23bn, the report’s estimate of £16bn to develop the technology and launch an operational 2GW solar satellite seems a bargain. Subsequent satellites at £3.6bn make the proposition even more attractive.

Then again, if the private sector is to help foot the bill, nation states will also have to revise the legal regime that governs the use of space. 

The outer space treaty of 1967 is woefully inadequate for the commercial opportunities that are fast emerging. Individual nations are now starting to fill the vacuum with their own rules on commercial rights and responsibilities. That could be a recipe for chaos, warns Rachael O’Grady, space partner at law firm Mayer Brown.

Of course, such an endeavour would be difficult for most countries to undertake alone. Given that the technology could be game changing for the global climate crisis, this project offers a strong case for development within an international partnership. 

Obviously, it is cheaper to build solar farms on earth. But space-based solar power, unlike its intermittent terrestrial counterpart, can be delivered round the clock to any point on the planet. It can provide a baseload of generation capacity where reliable green options are limited.

Until recently, it has been far too expensive to put such infrastructure in space. But Elon Musk’s partly reusable Falcon rocket and smaller satellites have changed the equation. A 2018 Nasa study estimated that the typical cost of launch has fallen by a factor of 20 over the previous decade. 

Other enabling technologies have also advanced. A New Zealand firm is already trialling the wireless transfer of electricity over several kilometres. Orbits above earth are much further away, admits Martin Soltau, head of space at Frazer-Nash. But the underlying physics is well understood.

The size of the satellite presents the biggest challenge, which in Frazer-Nash’s scenario stretches to an unprecedented 1.7km wide. Such scale ensures efficient transmission of power to earth.

This may seem impossible. But John Mankins, a former Nasa physicist, has devised the SPS-Alpha concept using the system of systems approach. One satellite could comprise thousands of small solar power units, assembled in space by robots, for which technology is also rapidly evolving. 

No doubt questions will arise over the system’s vulnerability, its maintenance, and its contribution to the growing crisis of space debris. These and other issues will require further study. 

Also no guarantee exists that space-based solar power will be economically viable. However, even should costs spiral, any innovations in areas such as power beaming and robotics could pay off, even if solar satellites do not.

In November, the UK hosts the global climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow. The topic of collaboration deserves discussion. The energy and space industries will also have to participate. Companies such as BP, Shell and EDF apparently have expressed interest.

Space based solar power need not remain science fiction any more than commercial space travel once was. Yes, the risk exists that promising technologies such as space-based solar power might not work. And failure to reach international agreement on an effective legal framework could render space hostile not just to human life, but to human prosperity.

But with the right encouragement and planning this source of renewable energy can work in our lifetime.

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