The world’s energy consumption is increasing and will continue to grow. According to a report by the University of Oxford, current global energy consumption is more than 160 billion megawatt hours per year, of which solar energy today contributes only 0.58 billion megawatt hours.
Despite increases investment in renewable energy solutions, more than 80 percent of global energy is fueled by hydrocarbons. Solar energy today generates less than 0.4 percent.
Current predictions indicate that global population, currently 7.9 billion, will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. As a result of both demographics and rising living standards in developing nations, the world’s energy consumption is predicted to grow by 50 percent by 2050.
Reliance on fossil fuel usage for most of the world’s energy generation contributes significantly to accelerating climate change and the resulting impacts for life on Earth. With such pressure to increase energy generation, while minimizing climate change, can what might appear to be the radical concept of solar power from space be an additional alternative to fossil fuels?
Commitments to Net Zero
The U.K. government is legally committed to net zero by the Climate Change Act 2008, which set a binding goal of 100 percent reduction in emissions by 2050.
As part of this ambition, the U.K. government is supporting a pioneering plan to beam energy down from solar panels in space. This could deliver affordable clean energy, at all times, throughout the year and independent of the weather to populations on Earth.
Space-based solar power is a decades-old concept for very large solar power satellites, typically in a Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) where they are exposed to the sun for almost 100 percent of the time. These satellites harvest solar energy, which is converted to microwaves, using solid state power conversion, and beamed to ground-based rectennas. A typical system would deliver 2 gigawatts, enough to power 1 million homes.
Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng, recently stated that space-based solar power “presents an exciting opportunity for the U.K. to lead in a new market, enhance our energy security, and contribute to U.K. net zero.”
In a study for the U.K. government in 2021, Frazer-Nash Consultancy concluded that space-based solar power: is technically feasible, and could support net zero pathways; is affordable; and development would bring substantial economic benefits for the U.K.
Participating in the recent Royal Aeronautical Society conference “Towards a Space Enabled Net Zero Earth,” Martin Soltau, business manager for Frazer-Nash Consultancy and co-chair of the Space Energy Initiative (SEI) says, “The U.K. has a huge opportunity to take a leadership role in developing this breakthrough clean energy technology. The SEI has strong government support, an investable plan, around a market leading solar power satellite concept, and comprises a coalition of more than 50 organizations across the energy, space, finance and public sectors. We are reaching out to international partners to establish a commercial development program.”
He added “all energy technologies have pros and cons, but space-based solar power has few if any downsides. Its ability to provide baseload and dispatchable energy makes it integrate well with intermittent wind and ground solar power. Its unique ability to beam energy to other nations offers particular flexibility.”
At the conference, Howard Nye, president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, commented that although the concept of harnessing solar power from space has been around for some time, “it is only now that studies have shown it to be both feasible and beneficial and with the support of both public and private investors. The next step in the process will be to put in place the infrastructure and systems to demonstrate the ability to provide the U.K. with clean energy generated in space.”
Dr. Andrew Wilson, knowledge exchange associate for the Aerospace Centre of Excellence at the University of Strathclyde, has worked extensively in this area.
“If space solar power is to help the U.K. deliver net zero, it must be able to do what it says on the tin. The University of Strathclyde and Metasat UK have conducted extensive assessments to properly evaluate the environment profile of the technology. Our preliminary findings indicate that the SEI program would produce a carbon footprint of 23.6 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt hour over its entire life cycle, including launch, which is comparable to terrestrial renewable energy systems. We now expect these findings to be integrated into the SEI technology roadmap to improve on this figure and build space solar power systems in a manner that makes them as environmentally friendly as technically possible.”
The Global Perspective and UK Differentiation
There is increasing global interest in space based solar power, and research programs are underway in several nations, with the notable leaders being China, Japan and the United States.
The European Space Agency recently launched a series of research studies, and contracted with Frazer-Nash Consultancy to assess the costs and benefits of the technology for Europe. Each of the European nations has different energy generation policies and constraints, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine, together with the dependence of some nations on Russian oil and gas, has brought energy security sharply into focus as a pressing priority alongside the drive to decarbonize. Space-based solar power could be a very attractive option for Europe in the medium term, addressing both energy security and net zero in a sustainable and scalable way.
Martin further noted that the U.K. is ahead of many countries in its legally binding commitment to achieving net zero by 2050. The SEI’s uniquely commercial and holistic approach, and its close partnership with the U.K. government, has set the U.K. apart from other efforts around the world. It is addressing the technical aspects of space-based power as well as considerations such as the economics, energy market, regulations, societal and political aspects, environmental impact, and supply.
Next Steps for Space-Based Power
Space Solar Limited has recently been established as the commercial entity representing the SEI collaboration. Its development plan includes a series of risk reduction activities, leading to a demonstration of megawatt scale power beaming down from space in just six years’ time. The first commercial power station in space, delivering 2 gigawatts of continuous power – sufficient to power 1 million homes — will be commissioned and fully operational within 12 years. Thereafter, the highly modular production systems will be built and deployed rapidly, so that a substantial percentage of our energy generation could be beamed from space by 2050.
Sam Adlen, chief strategy officer at the Satellite Applications Catapult, summarized that we are at the point where urgent need meets the art of the possible. We need to embed space solar power within energy policy, and develop international partnerships and approaches to drive regulation and to develop this compelling option for a sustainable future.
Space-based solar power is now seen to offer exciting new potential to help address the U.K.’s and global energy consumption needs while driving toward net zero. Government partnership with the private sector for investment in further technological advances as well as enabling regulatory and policy development will be key to maximizing progress and the confidence building necessary to convert potential to fruition. VS
Joanne Wheeler MBE, is the managing director of Alden Legal.
Martin Soltau is senior business manager for Frazer-Nash Consultancy and co-chair of the Space Energy Initiative.