Imagine harnessing the power of the sun not just from the Earth but from space itself. That's the essence of Space Solar Power (SSP).
It's an advanced concept where solar energy is collected in the vastness of space and then beamed down to Earth. This method bypasses earthly limitations like nightfall and weather conditions, ensuring a constant, unobstructed flow of solar energy.
While it might sound like a futuristic idea, the fundamental principles behind SSP are as timeless as the sun itself.
To define space solar power: it is a source of clean energy where energy gathered from sunlight in space is transmitted wirelessly to the Earth.
The Sun, with an estimated lifetime of 4-5 billion years, presents a truly long-term energy solution. Furthermore, Space Solar Power does not emit greenhouse gases and is not reliant on increasingly scarce freshwater resources, valuable farmland, or natural-gas-derived fertilizer.
It also doesn't produce hazardous waste and, in contrast to traditional solar power solutions, remains unaffected by cloud cover, daylight variations, or wind speed.
The opportunities that Space Solar Power presents us with have inspired many organizations to build solutions around it. Some prominent players in the space-based solar power market include Airbus, Azur Space Solar Power GmbH, Fralock LLC, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, Northrop Grumman, Borrego Energy, LLC., Solaren Corporation, Space Tech GmbH, Space Canada, DHV Technology, and more.
But before we delve deeper into understanding how these businesses and their solutions work, let us go through what space-based solar power systems are and why they are deemed viable for clean, renewable energy production.
The Science Behind Space-Based Solar Power Systems
Studies indicate that every hour, the Earth receives more solar energy than humanity consumes in an entire year. Interestingly, the Earth's atmosphere reflects about 30% of this solar energy back into space.
Space solar power generation systems capitalize on the abundant solar energy that's otherwise lost in space, untouched. After all, the absence of atmospheric interferences like clouds and the constant exposure to sunlight without the interruption of the night make these satellite-based systems exceptionally efficient. They can capture and transmit substantially more energy back to Earth than traditional solar panels.
In these space-based solar power capturing and transmission systems, satellites equipped with panels also possess energy-transmitting capabilities. They use large-sized mirrors to concentrate massive amounts of solar rays onto smaller solar collectors. This high-intensity, uninterrupted solar radiation is then wirelessly beamed to Earth safely and in a controlled manner.
The Viability of Space Solar Power: Technical Innovations
Transmission of space solar power has become viable because of the technical innovations achieved of late. There are two types of transmission systems.
The first is the microwave-transmitting solar satellites, while the other is the laser-transmitting solar satellites. In microwave-transmitting satellites, the sunlight reflects off the large mirrors into the center of the satellite, where it is transformed into uninterrupted microwave energy beamed to Earth.
Moving to the second type, the laser-transmitting satellites, as their name suggests, utilize lasers instead of microwave beams. These satellites typically operate in groups with other smaller satellites, owing to their smaller size.
When it comes to the economic viability of these two setups, laser solar satellites have relatively low startup costs in the range of US$500 million to US$1 billion. The smaller diameter of the laser beam makes it easy and cheap to implement on the ground.
However, microwave solar satellites serve the purpose when it comes to capturing and transmitting steady, uninterrupted power through rain, clouds, and other atmospheric conditions. It can provide upwards of 1 gigawatts of energy to its terrestrial receiver, which is enough energy to power a large city.
While discussing all these advancements, we must never forget that these technological marvels were not achieved in a day. It involves a long tradition of scientific and technological research. To understand space solar power’s future potential, we must contextualize it.
Evolution of the Space Solar Concept: Inception to Current State
- Space solar power concepts began to be studied in the United States.
- Asia started studying space solar power concepts.
Late 1990s – Early 2000s:
- 1998: The Space Solar Power Concept Definition Study identifies credible, commercially viable space solar power concepts and their associated technical and programmatic risks.
- 1998: Japan’s space agency develops a space solar power system, which remains active.
- 1999: NASA’s Space Solar Power Exploratory Research and Technology Program is initiated.
Early 2010 to 2020
- 2010: The Indian Space Research Organization begins the groundwork on space solar power.
- 2012: China proposes a joint development of space solar power with India.
- 2015: Caltech and Northrop Grumman Corporation established the Space Solar Power Initiative, allocating approximately US$17.5 million over three years for the development of a space-based solar power system.
- 2022: The United Kingdom announces its Space Energy Initiative, aiming to launch its first space power station by the mid-2040s and targeting 30% of its electricity demand from this source.
- 2022: The European Space Agency announces the Solaris program, planning to operate Solar Power Satellites from 2030.
- 2023: CalTech’s Space Solar Power Demonstrator (SSPD-1) successfully beams detectable power to Earth.
Throughout these years, various national governments, university research departments, and state-funded organizations have explored the infrastructure and possibilities of space solar power.
Significant contributions have also come from businesses and companies like Northrop Grumman, Airbus, and Solaren Corporation in developing this transformative energy source.
While many of these Space Solar Programs have come from national governments, university research departments, and state-funded autonomous organizations, businesses and companies like Northrop Grumman, Airbus, and Solaren Corporation have played crucial roles in tapping this transformative energy source.
Companies With Transformative Space Solar Power Initiatives
The Baltimore, Maryland-based firm Northrop Grumman’s Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research (SSPIDR) Project team is working to make the transmission of solar energy from space to anywhere on Earth a reality.
The project aims to leverage on-orbit, highly-efficient photovoltaic cells to collect solar energy to convert it into radio frequency (RF) energy to be beamed to a receiving station on Earth.
The firm has been a leader in developing turnkey solar array systems suitable for space. Its photovoltaic subassemblies feature the latest technologies to weld or solder with robotic automation, connecting solar cells into circuits up to six feet in length.
Its Covered Interconnected Cells offer integration of solar cells and coverglass for CIC assemblies.
It also manufactures solar cell strings, resistive wing isolation board assemblies for the most extreme environments of space, full temperature range capable (-185 to >300 degrees C), platinum resistance thermometer assemblies, and more.
These innovations have helped Space Solar Power initiatives move ahead in speed and achieve their potential.
In 2022, Northrop Grumman registered sales of US$36.6 billion and recorded a transaction-adjusted earning per share of US$25.54. The net earnings of the company was nearly US$5 billion in FY 2022.
Another company that outperformed in this field was Airbus. Its power-beaming solutions aim at helping Europe access more renewable energies independently, with new energy networks in the sky offering independent and sustainable power supply around the clock. The first operating Power Beaming prototypes of Airbus could be in use by the early 2030s.
Additionally, Airbus is also a leading European manufacturer of solar arrays, photovoltaic assemblies, and solar cell assemblies for institutional and commercial applications. It has manufactured power conditioning and distributing units for satellites. It also supplies electric propulsion systems and a range of electronics for electric propulsion, including power control and power processing units required in space solar systems.
Airbus is also working towards building advanced photovoltaic solar panels that are lighter, more flexible, and capable of capturing more energy on its surface. Its flagship program, Zephyr, is a high-altitude pseudo-satellite powered exclusively by solar energy.
All these contribute greatly towards advancing the cause of Space Solar Power at a faster pace with enhanced efficiency.
In FY 2022, Airbus recorded revenues worth 58.8 billion Euros, with an adjusted EBIT of 5.6 billion Euros. Its free cash flow before M&A and customer financing stood at 4.7 billion Euros. The business proposed a dividend of 1.80 Euros per share.
An emerging innovator in this field, Solaren Corporation, has developed ways of transmitting cost-competitive, zero-emission electricity from space.
Over the next ten years, Solaren will develop, launch, and operate the first SSP plant and sell electricity. Solaren has also acquired cutting-edge SSP system patents in countries like the United States, the European Union, China, Japan, India, Canada, and the Federation of Russia.
Solaren’s Space Solar Power solutions have many benefits. It includes a clean baseload electricity supply 24/7, which is cost-competitive, emission-free, and devoid of the scope of nuclear radiation. It also does not require water for thermal cooling, negating the chance of oceans, rivers, and lakes getting heated up.
Solaren’s Space Solar Power solution has two components: the Solar Power Satellite and the Ground Receive Station. The satellite utilizes solar arrays and RF array/antenna to capture and transmit. The Ground Receive Station receives the transmitted power through its receiving antennas.
In July 2023, Solaren announced the successful completion of its latest funding round, led by Skyseed Ventures. Solaren raised $2.46 million in that round.
Global Impact and Viability of Space Solar Power
The advent of highly advanced technologies around space-based solar power systems has helped power space vehicles, satellites, rovers, and other space infrastructure. Solar energy from space can help these systems run for extended durations without the need for frequent refueling from onboard energy sources.
The innovations have lowered the cost of developing reusable rockets, reducing the expense of launching equipment into space. The maintenance cost of space-based solar power capturing and transmitting architecture has also come down. Increased use of robotics and automation would play a vital role in bringing down costs further and increasing efficiency.
According to estimates, North America dominates the space with nearly two-fifths of the global revenue generated from the region. However, when it comes to future growth drivers, China and India hold high potential.
Challenges to Overcome
In the future, space solar power solutions will have to overcome some crucial bottlenecks. One of these is attaining the perfect balance between production cost and performance. The less costly laser-transmitting solutions suffer from the low power of each satellite, requiring several satellites to make a notable impact. The costlier microwave-transmitting solutions, on the other hand, can go into tens of billions of dollars in launching expenses.
Laser-transmitting solutions, while innovative, can pose safety-related challenges such as blinding and potential weaponization. On the other hand, microwave-transmitting solutions, although avoiding these specific safety concerns, require a lot of space, necessitating terrestrial receivers to be several kilometers in diameter.
Laser-transmitting satellites also bear the brunt of atmospheric irregularities such as heavy clouds or rains. The microwave-transmitting solutions, owing to their required distance from the Earth, are practically impossible to repair.
All these problems have to be duly addressed and solved. The size of the satellites and terrestrial receivers will have to come down drastically without being reduced in their energy-capturing and transmitting capabilities.
The cost has to be moderate for developing countries to be more confident in testing and trying out these technologies. Repairing provisions have to be set up more vigorously, and the solutions should become independent of prevailing weather in their performance.
A Promising Road Ahead
With large public companies investing heavily in manufacturing Space Solar Power products and solutions, the road ahead looks promising. Innovation will thrive, and the system will become more efficient and optimal.
After all, the force that drives Space Solar Power missions globally is the greater cause of achieving sustainability for the planet through renewable energy.
Upon achieving its full potential, Space Solar Power could deliver electricity to any country at the same cost without requiring any new expenditure towards building long-distance transmission lines.
Analysts believe Space Solar Power can create more than 250,000 permanent high-tech jobs in the coming two decades. In reality, this number could be even bigger.
Hence, space solar power solutions will keep occupying an increased share of the existing US$2 trillion global electricity market. With growing scope, more and more solution providers will hop on the SSP bandwagon. It will become an economically viable way of solving energy challenges facing the planet today.