Can a solar power plant in Earth’s orbit solve energy problems?

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to: Constantine Hobby

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ESA proposes to enter Europe into solar power generation from space in order to achieve climate goals by 2050. But the costs are high.

PARIS – It sounds like science fiction: huge solar collectors can generate energy in space and transmit it wirelessly to Earth. What currently seems like pure fantasy could soon become a reality. The European Space Agency (ESA) would like to start a preparatory project aimed at exactly this goal.

For Europe to become independent of energy imports and achieve its self-imposed goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, ESA intends to propose a new program called “Solaris” to its members in November. This is intended to prepare for the production of “space-based solar energy” (abbreviated SBSP) with studies and technology development.

A European space station must be established for the Solaris project in order to create the necessary infrastructure in space. © M. Pedoussaut / dpa

Energy from Space: Not a New Idea

The idea of ​​creating a solar power plant in orbit is nothing new: as early as the 1960s, American engineer Peter Glaser, who died in 2014, advocated the use of satellites to generate electricity as a consultant to NASA. However, due to the high costs, these plans were cancelled.

However, the idea has experienced a renaissance in recent years: SBSP is currently being researched in both the United States and China. The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) wants to test the satellite’s prototype for SBSP in space.

The main obstacle is transmitting the generated energy back to Earth: So the research team at Caltech wants to send the collected energy back to Earth wirelessly via microwaves. Experiments are currently being carried out by the US Naval Research Laboratory, which was able to transmit electricity over a kilometer using microwave radiation for the first time in April of this year.

Energy from space: Europe needs space infrastructure

The initiation of such a program would have significant repercussions for Europe: technologies and infrastructure for launching missiles would have to be created. An investigation by London-based Frazer-Nash Consultancy showed that sufficient capabilities for the SBSP could only be created with a dedicated European spaceport.

In addition, a reusable cargo rocket must be developed in order to keep infrastructure construction costs in space as low as possible. SpaceX also demonstrated that this technology is promising with its Falcon 9 rocket.

Energy from space: a third of Europe’s electricity needs can be generated in orbit

According to experts, a space power plant consisting of 54 satellites can supply up to 800 TWh of energy annually. This corresponds to a third of the current European consumption of electricity. Europe’s dependence on imports for energy production could be reduced to zero by 2050 using just 20 satellites – which would be orders of magnitude larger than the ISS – according to the consultants.

The second analysis by consulting firm Roland Berger also sees great opportunities, but also challenges in the project: Europe could become the market leader in this area, especially in the development of new technologies. Both analyzes of the Solaris project are publicly available on the Esa website.

Energy from space: great benefits but huge costs for European countries

However, project decision makers also focus on costs: they are too high. Frazer-Nash Consultancy has calculated the cost of SBSP at €481 billion. This applies to a term between 2040 and 2070.

However, according to the company’s calculations, these high costs are offset by savings and financial benefits of 601 billion euros. For Germany alone, net interest between 2040 and 2070 will be €70 billion with comprehensive incomes.

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Energy from Space: Resolution in November

One thing is already certain, should the ESA Council of Ministers give its approval to the Solaris project in November, this would lay the groundwork for the largest energy project humanity could ever tackle. If successful, a sustainable and environmentally friendly source of energy can be created. (Constantine Hobby)

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