Reaching For The Stars With Space-Based Solar Power Growth

by | Aug 9, 2021 | Blog

An illustration of a satellite in space, demonstrating how space-based solar power would work.

Summary

  • The climate crisis and increasing pollution is a considerable threat to the future of our planet and human health. Since 2016, the energy sector has been responsible for 73.2% of greenhouse gas emissions – making it the dominant sector contributing to climate change. With the rise in the population, energy demands are increasing. Therefore, we must find a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.
  • Space-based solar power, also known as SBSP, uses raw and uninterrupted energy from the sun. By using mirrors and wireless transmission, this space energy system sends the usable power back to Earth.
  • Spaced-based solar energy could be a large part of solar power growth, and it may solve some of the challenges that face territorial energy production. SBSP may be able to generate electricity 24 hours a day because there is no nighttime or weather to interrupt the solar radiation in space. Moreover, this approach bypasses the Earth’s atmosphere – meaning it converts more solar power into usable energy.
  • Despite the myriad of benefits, some factors are holding back the development of solar space projects – such as the cost of launch, manufacturing and assembly.

Introduction: Why Do We Need Renewable Energy?

In 2020, we saw the renewable energy sector grow by 45%, the greatest increase since 1999.

The increase in the renewable energy sector is a vital step for humanity, especially with the increase in population. Interestingly, the UN has predicted that the global population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Therefore, as the population grows, the demand for energy will rise with it.

Part of the solution is switching to green energy and decreasing the global dependence on fossil fuels. In 2016, Our World In Data estimated that the energy sector (including electricity, heating and transport) makes up 73.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These dangerous emissions are why the IEA has put together a plan to reach net-zero by 2050. The report highlights that the “energy economy [will be] dominated by renewables like solar”.  Likewise, renewable energy investments have increased by 600% between 2004 and 2015, pushing this green power initiative. By switching to renewable energy, we will decrease our dependency on fossil-fuel-based energy, slow down the effects of climate change and promote human health by reducing pollution.

Excitingly, in 2020, we saw the renewable energy sector grow by 45% – the greatest increase since 1999. This solar power growth means the renewable energy industry is heading in the right direction. In fact, between 2019 and 2026, the solar energy market is expected to grow by 20.5%. However, to keep the momentum going, people need to continue investing in renewable projects such as solar power.

This article will focus on space-based solar power. We will explore why this development may be the next big thing in the renewable energy sector and the measures that will be required to make it a reality.

An infographic showing the effect of investing in solar power growth.

What is Space-Based Solar Power?

Global Data reported that we must look beyond planet Earth for ways to make the world more sustainable.

Space-based solar power (SBSP) uses the raw, uninterrupted energy from the sun and converts it into usable energy, such as electricity and heating. Much like the solar panels you see on residential rooftops and commercial buildings, SBSP uses the same technology in a very different location! Unlike earth-based solar power, SBSP uses large mirrors to reflect solar rays to smaller solar panels. This energy is wirelessly transmitted to Earth using a laser beam or microwave technology.

A space-based solar power system is built from three components:

  • Large mirrors to reflect solar energy into solar cells
  • Wireless transmission facilities
  • An antenna that will receive the power on Earth

Although the thought of lasers in space sounds like something out of a movie, Global Data reported that we must look beyond planet Earth for ways to make the world more sustainable. Experts have concluded that these ambitious plans are likely to improve our prospects for accessing clean energy on a global scale.

Why Choose Space-Based Solar Power?

There are no day-to-night transitions or weather patterns to contend with in space, meaning solar power systems can generate electricity 24-hours a day.

So, what makes space-based power so desirable? NASA has investigated space-based solar power since the 1970s, but until recently, it was deemed unviable. As solar opportunities increase, space-based systems may have the potential to launch in the future.

Firstly, land-based power systems face particular challenges that are not a concern in space. For instance, solar arrays will only operate when the sun is shining. What this means for Earth-based solar power is that at night you won’t be generating energy. Likewise, when the weather is cold and grey, solar panels won’t work at their optimum level. Although solar batteries can help to offset these issues, there can still be a few limitations associated with using solar power on Earth.

A considerable advantage of harnessing solar power from space is the uninterrupted flow of energy. There are no day-to-night transitions or changing weather patterns to contend with in space, meaning solar power systems can generate electricity 24-hours a day. This may help to power the world in a more ethical way. Moreover, Earth-based solar panels only convert a small percentage of the sun’s power into usable energy. In comparison, the raw radiation that space-based solar cells absorb is more intense because it isn’t obstructed by the Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, although the sun provides more energy in one hour than the planet uses in one year, 30% of this is reflected back into space by our atmosphere. In summary, space-based cells can convert more power into electricity compared to solar panels on Earth.

Furthermore, a solar farm is required when using solar power systems to generate large quantities of energy. However, solar cells must be mounted into the ground, taking up a large surface area. While they have many benefits, projects that aren’t managed with care can disrupt wildlife and natural landscapes. Consequently, by using space-based solar power, we may be able to avoid using excess land and protect the natural habitats on Earth.

The possibilities of space-based solar growth are vast, and it may potentially offer solutions to some of the current challenges that impact the solar industry.

A concept image of space debris flying around Earth.

What are the Drawbacks of Space-Based Solar Power Growth?

All the expenses quickly add up, and this is the main reason the growth of space-based solar power is relatively dormant.

As solar power growth looks up to space for the next steps, we must evaluate why the renewable energy sector isn’t there yet. Although space-based power solves some of the issues PV solar panels currently face, it also presents some new challenges.

As we have discovered, space-based energy may solve the issues that come with variable weather patterns and geographical territories. These systems don’t have to withstand the forces of Canadian winters, nor do they stop generating power at night. However, in space, energy projects do need to endure solar flares and micro meteors. In the Handbook of Satellite Application, Michael Rycroft discusses how space conditions may damage satellites. For example, issues may arise due to space debris, micrometeorites, and near-vacuum conditions – highlighting some of the hurdles solar technicians have to tackle.

Interestingly, solar panels are known for being relatively low maintenance. Depending on the weather conditions, they usually only need wiping down to remove excess snow or dust (if the rain hasn’t done this already). However, when solar power systems launch into space, they become inaccessible, and maintenance is no longer an easy task. If an astronaut were to work in low earth orbit to maintain the device, they would be exposed to extremely dangerous radiation levels.

With accessibility in mind, this leads to the cost of sending solar equipment into space in the first place. Continuing on from maintenance, a telerobot may potentially be used to service the solar power system at a lower expense than sending a human into low earth orbit. Using telerobotics avoids the issue of damaging human health and makes maintenance easier. However, all the expenses quickly add up, and this is the main reason the growth of space-based solar is relatively dormant. Between the cost of production and assembly (which would most likely take place in space), it makes space-based energy unobtainable – at least for now.

Although harnessing solar energy from space is costly, we see the demand for earth-based solar energy rise. In consequence, solar equipment is becoming more affordable. This could help to open new doors for out-of-this-world developments. On this theme, China plans to launch a solar energy system into space, with prospects to assemble a commercial level solar power station by 2050.

Closing Thoughts

If we can get solar energy systems into space, it could generate new opportunities for the renewable energy sector. With space-based solar power growth, we could supply renewable energy 24-hours a day, without obstruction from the atmosphere, weather, time of day or geographical location. Harnessing solar power in this way means the conversion rate of raw sunlight to usable energy would be higher, and it would also reduce the need for solar storage. However, with this said, we are not there yet. There are still some obstacles to overcome, and it’s important to remember that investing in solar power systems on Earth is still a bright venture for residents and commercial buyers alike.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why does the world need renewable energy?

With the global population rising, the UN has predicted that there will be 9.7 billion people living on Earth by 2050, which means the energy demands will also increase. Unfortunately, fossil-fuel-based energy releases astronomical levels of toxic emissions, such as greenhouse gases. These hazardous pollutants contribute to climate change and drastically damage habitats and human health. This is where renewable energy comes in. With cleaner options such as solar and wind power, we will reduce the dependency on fossil fuels and lower harmful emissions. Solar and wind power indirectly minimise air, water and soil pollution, making the world a more sustainable and healthy place. In particular, solar energy seems to be the safest form of renewable energy. Hence, it’s crucial to continue investing in solar power if we are to reach the necessary goals for reducing climate change.

 

What is space-based solar power?

The solar power industry is expanding at a desirable rate. Between 2019 to 2026, it is expected to rise by 20.5%. However, within these developments, we may see space-based solar power emerge. But, what exactly is it? Much like how earth-based solar systems harness the sun’s energy and convert it into usable electricity, it works the same way in space. Although, the key difference is while in space, the sun’s energy is uninterrupted as there is no weather to get in the way. The sun’s radiation is reflected onto smaller PV cells and wirelessly transmitted to Earth using a large mirror.

 

Is space-based solar power growth the future of renewable energy?

It’s hard to say precisely where the industry will go. Residential, commercial and large-scale utility projects are a desirable way to use solar energy on Earth. They offer a low-maintenance, green alternative to fossil fuels by using a clean, renewable source. However, these projects are weather dependent and cannot operate at night unless you install a solar storage system. Therefore, space-based solar energy may be the primary movement we see within solar power growth.

 

Will solar panels work in space?

Theoretically, solar panels ought to thrive in space because the sun’s raw energy and radiation are uninterrupted by weather variables or nighttime conditions. SBSP seems to have a lot going for it – from reducing the impact on wildlife and natural landscapes to converting more energy than its Earth-based counterparts. In all, solar panels in space will reduce the need for solar storage and might just be a promising step in solar power growth.

 

Are there any disadvantages of solar panels in space?

While the possibility of solar panels in space is exciting, there is a reason these developments aren’t in place yet. Although the benefits may include higher energy conversion rates and 24-hour power generation, there is still the issue of solar debris, solar flares, micro meteors and more. These factors have been known to damage satellites and may cause concern when it comes to assembling solar power systems in space. Moreover, the costs associated with maintenance, construction, launch and assembly are astronomical. Therefore, space-based solar power is unattainable at the present moment.