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‘I’: British Government Considering Solar Power Satellites

A bit more space technology news now. The weekend edition of the I, for Saturday 14th November 2020 carried a piece by Tom Bawden, ‘The final frontier for energy’ with the subtitle ‘Revealed: the UK is supporting a plan to create a giant solar power station in space’. The article ran

Millions of British homes could be powered by a giant solar power station 24,000 miles up in space within three decades, under proposals being considered by the government.

Under the plan, a system of five huge satellites – each more than a mile wide, covered in solar panels and weighing several thousand tons – would deliver laser beams of energy down to Earth.

These would provide up to 15 per cent of the country’s electricity supply by 2050, enough to power four million households – with the first space energy expected to be delivered by 2040. Each satellite would be made from tens of thousands of small modules, propelled into space through 200 separate rocket launches, and then assembled by robots.

The satellites would use thousands of mirrors to concentrate the sunlight on to the solar panels, which would be converted into high frequency radio waves. These would be beamed to a receiving antenna on the Earth, converted into electricity and delivered to our homes.

While the prospect of a solar space station beaming energy into our homes might seem outlandish, advocates are hopeful it can be done. The Government and the UK Space Agency are taking the technology extremely seriously, believing it could play a crucial role in helping the country to fulfil its promise of becoming carbon neutral – or net zero – by 2050, while keeping the lights on.

They have appointed the engineering consultancy Frazer-Nash to look into the technical and economic feasibility and it will report back next year.

“Solar space stations may sound like science fiction, but they could be a game-changing new source of energy for the UK and the rest of the world,” the science minister, Amanda Solloway, said.

“This pioneering study will help shine a light on the possibilities for a space-based solar power system which, if successful, could play an important role in reducing our emissions and meeting the UK’s ambitious climate-change targets,” she said.

Martin Soltau, of Frazer-Nash, who is leading the feasibility study, said: “This technology is really exciting and could be a real force for good. It has the potential to transform the energy market and make the net-zero target achievable – and from an engineering perspective it looks feasible.”

Previous analysis by other researchers on economic viability suggests space solar could be “competitive” with existing methods of electricity generation but that will need to be independently assessed, Mr Soltau said.

If the UK is to become net zero it needs to find a green source of energy that is totally dependable because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun definitely doesn’t always shine.

This is where solar space comes in, with its panels sufficiently much closer to the sun that they are not blighted by clouds and darkness.

“This would provide a baseload of energy 24/7 and 365 days a year – and has a fuel supply for the next five billion years,” said Mr Soltau, referring to the predicted date of the sun’s eventual demise.

Until recently, this project really would have been a pipe dream – but two developments mean it is now a realistic prospect, Mr Soltau says.

The first is the new generation of reusable rockets, such as the Falcon 9 launcher from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which mean satellites can be sent into space far more cheaply.

The cost of launching objects into low Earth orbit has gone from about $20,000 (£15,000) a kilogram in the early 2000s to less $3,000 now – and looks to fall below $1,000 in the coming years, he says.

At the same time, solar panels are much cheaper and more than three times as efficient as they were in the 1990s, meaning far fewer need to be sent into orbit to produce the same amount of energy.

Mr Soltau is hopeful, although by no means certain, that his study will find the technology to be feasible in economic and engineering terms – with the technology looking like it’s on track.

The five satellite solar power station system envisaged by the Government will probably cost more than £10bn – and potentially quite a lot more – more than the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which would produce roughly similar amounts of electricity, is expected to cost about £30bn, including decommissioning, Mr Soltau points out.

When all is said and done, there’s no getting away from the fact that building a satellite of that size and complexity in orbit is a mindboggling task. But it could well be feasible.

The article was accompanied by this diagram.

The captions read

  1. Solar reflectors: Orientation of satellite with respect to the Sun controlled to constantly reflect sunlight onto the solar power array below.
  2. Solar panels and transmitters: Approximately 60,000 layers of solar panels that collect the sunlight from the reflectors, and convert this to transmit high frequency radio waves.
  3. Power transmission: High frequency radio wave transmission from satellite to receiver on ground.
  4. Ground station: approximately 5k in diameter rectenna (a special type of receiving antenna that is used for converting electromagnetic energy into direct current (DC) electricity), generating 2 gigawatts of power enough for 2 million people at peak demand.

The solar reflectors are the objects which look rather like DVDs/CDs. The box at the top of the diagram gives the heights of a few other objects for comparison.

The ISS – 110m

The London Shard – 310m

The Burj Khalifa – 830m

The Cassiopeia solar satellite 1,700m.

The use of solar power satellites as a source of cheap, green energy was proposed decades ago, way back when I was at school in the 1970s. I first read about it in the Usborne Book of the Future. I don’t doubt that everything in the article is correct, and that the construction of such satellites would be comparable in price, or even possibly cheaper, than conventional terrestrial engineering projects. I went to a symposium on the popular commercialisation space at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society way back at the beginning of this century. One of the speakers was an engineer, who stated that the construction of space stations, including space hotels, was actually comparable in cost to building a tower block here on Earth. There was just a difference in attitude. Although comparable in cost, such space stations were viewed as prohibitively expensive compared to similar terrestrial structures.

Apart from the expense involved, the other problem solar power satellites have is the method of transmission. All the previous systems I’ve seen beamed the power back to Earth as microwaves, which means that there is a possible danger from cancer. The use of laser beams might be a way round that, but I still wonder what the health and environmental impact would be, especially if the receiving station is around 5 km long.

I also wonder if the project would ever be able to overcome the opposition of vested interests, such as the nuclear and fossil fuel industries. One of the reasons the Trump government has been so keen to repeal environmental legislation and put in place measures to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job, is because the Republican party receives very generous funding from the oil industry, and particularly the Koch brothers. And there are plenty of Tory MPs who also possess links to big oil.

At the moment this looks like a piece of industry PR material. It’s an interesting idea, and I’ve no doubt that it’s factually correct, but given the resistance of the British establishment to new ideas, and especially those which might involve government expenditure, I have grave doubts about whether it will actually ever become a reality. Fossil fuels might be destroying the planet, but there are enough people on the right who don’t believe that’s happening and who get a very tidy profit from it, that I can see the oil industry being promoted against such projects for decades to come.

Will We Be Able to Reverse Trump’s Climate Damage?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 26/09/2020 - 2:58am in

Trump still managed to scramble the trajectory of American climate policy, creating a tangle of legal fights that will have to be cleared up for US climate policy to move forward. And he left almost no part of our environmental regulatory structure untouched. Continue reading

The post Will We Be Able to Reverse Trump’s Climate Damage? appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

Trump’s Climate Change Record Is a Threat to the Planet

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/09/2020 - 8:22am in

Now seems like a good time for a reminder that the official Republican Party platform for 2020 — recycled from 2016 — barely mentions climate change, except to say that market forces and innovations will solve it. In a bulleted … Continue reading

The post Trump’s Climate Change Record Is a Threat to the Planet appeared first on BillMoyers.com.