The sun never sets in space, so could it deliver carbon zero energy day and night?

Photo shows: Artist's impression of how a space-based solar power station might work. © Frazer-Nash Consultancy
Space Agency harvesting sun’s energy

The government has commissioned new research into space-based solar power (SBSP) systems that would use huge satellites to collect solar energy, convert it into high-frequency radio waves, and safely beam it back to ground-based receivers connected to the electrical power grid.

It is an idea first conjured by the American science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov in 1941, who was also a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, and is now being studied by several nations because the lightweight solar panels and wireless power transmission technology is advancing rapidly. This, together with lower cost commercial space launch, may make the concept of solar power satellites more feasible and economically viable.

But significant technological hurdles remain. The research, led by Frazer-Nash Consultancy, will consider the engineering and economics of such a system. 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 Swindon-based 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, said: outlined what the study will involve: “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.”

Frazer-Nash has partnered with Oxford Economics, which will provide additional insight to the economic assessment of the system, and the benefit to the UK economy.

In 2019, Britain passed an important milestone, with more electricity generated from sources like wind, solar and nuclear power, that produce almost no carbon dioxide emissions, than from carbon-emitting fuels like natural gas and coal.

According to the World Resources Institute – a Washington-based non-profit that tracks climate change – Britain has reduced carbon dioxide generated in the country by about 40 per cent, which is more than any other major industrialised country.