Energy Generation from Space Might be Closer Than You Think

Why does the European Space Agency’s new project share its name with an acclaimed Soviet sci-fi film?

Because, like Solaris, they’re also looking to capture something seemingly impossible from space – solar energy!

The project is a solar energy solution aiming to deliver a continuous flow of sustainable, scalable energy from space, reducing dependency on fossil fuels and enhancing renewable sources.

Developing the Technology

In 2023, Alenia Space Italy spearheaded the SOLARIS study, which detailed a space-based solar power (SBSP) system. Collaborating with ENEL, a renewable energy company, they developed a concept that harnesses radio waves to deliver a continuous flow of energy to Earth.

This would then deliver power on a 24/7 basis using a technique similar to that in telecommunications, but on a significantly larger scale to ensure economic feasibility.

Energy Transmission Models

At the time of writing, SOLARIS is exploring two primary models:

  • employing radio waves to transmit energy from space-based solar panels to ground receivers; and
  • using large space mirrors to enhance solar energy capture at terrestrial farms, even during low light conditions.

The mirror approach, easier to implement, could swiftly increase the amount of energy solar farms produce, offering a short-term improvement in the energy received from renewable sources.

The radio-wave system, while more complex, is designed to build a strong and large-scale system for sending energy over long distances and can deliver much more in terms of power.

Prospective Benefits of Space Based Solar Power

SBSP can potentially revolutionise our approach to sustainable energy in a myriad of ways.

  • Compared to nuclear power, SBSP generates almost 0% hazardous waste.
  • SBSP systems can generate electricity continuously, 24 hours a day, for 99% of the year. In contrast, earth-based solar panels can only produce electricity during daylight hours.
  • Moreover, space-based solar panels can continuously generate 2,000 GW of power, which is 40 times the annual output of terrestrial solar panels.
  • Unlike alternative energy sources such as nuclear, coal, oil, gas, and ethanol, SBSP produces zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Engineering Challenges

Constructing and maintaining expansive solar power constellations in space – which could potentially span kilometres – does present considerable challenges. These involve assembly, operation, and the management of space debris and weather risks.

However, advancements in robotics, reusable launch systems, and in-orbit servicing will aid the viability of these systems.

Economic Implications and Future Prospects

With potential for new markets in space-based energy systems and ancillary technologies, the economic implications of SOLARIS are significant – in fact, the ESA has already begun funding UK firms to develop robotic systems for space-based solar farms.

Ongoing studies will refine these technologies as well as explore the broader applications of SBSP, from boosting terrestrial energy capabilities to enhancing other space-based operations.

Engineers believe that with successful advancements in reusable rocket technology, making SBSP cost-effective is within reach. This would significantly contribute to solving future energy shortages, especially as prices continue to rise and the impacts of climate change intensify.

Interested in learning more about the project? We cover current affairs on the energy industry in our energy market reports. Subscribe here for daily updates!

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