The UK’s electricity could someday come from satellites in outer space if the UK Government’s new research goes according to plan.
Frazer-Nash Consultancy has been commissioned by the UK Government to research space-based solar power systems. The research will focus on the feasibility of large solar power satellites to collect solar energy, convert it into high-frequency radio waves, and beam it back to ground-based receivers connected to the electrical power grid.
If the idea sounds like it’s straight out of science fiction, that’s because it is. It was first written about by Isaac Asimov, a science-fiction writer, in 1941, with several nations around the world now researching their potential.
While solar power works on earth, the Sun’s energy is a lot more powerful outside of our atmosphere, so it’s hoped that these new satellites could produce a lot more electricity than solar panels on our planet.
The UK Government is hoping that the technology will now be feasible thanks to the development of lightweight solar panels and wireless power transmission technology, coupled with the lower cost commercial space launch.
The study, led by Frazer-Nash Consultancy, will consider the engineering and economics of such a system – whether it could deliver affordable energy for consumers, and the engineering and technology that would be required to build it. One of the biggest issues to overcome is assembling the massive satellites in orbit, which has not been done before at this scale.
Dr Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said, “The Sun never sets in space, so a space solar power system could supply renewable energy to anywhere on the planet, day or night, rain or shine. It is an idea that has existed for decades, but has always felt decades away.
“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.”
Historically, the cost of rocket launches and the weight that would be required for a project of this scale made the idea of space-based solar power unfeasible. But the emergence of privately-led space ventures has brought the cost of launch down dramatically in the last decade.
Martin Soltau, space business Manager at Frazer-Nash outlined what the study will involve, “Decarbonising our economy is vital. We need to explore new technologies to provide clean, affordable, secure and dependable energy for the nation. SBSP has the potential to contribute substantially to UK energy generation, and offers many benefits if it can be made practical and affordable.
“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.
“We have also partnered with Oxford Economics, who have significant experience in the space sector and who will provide additional insight to the economic assessment of the system, and the benefit to the UK economy.