With a current energy crisis and drive for carbon-neutral cities and electric-powered transport systems, the need for renewable energy sources is ever-increasing in demand. But are solar energy farms in space the answer?
As of October 2022, more than two million households in the UK are in debt on their electricity bills, with the National Energy Action estimating that 6.7 million households are in fuel poverty. And, although the UK is initiating the UK’s Energy Bills Support scheme and providing every home £400 towards energy costs between October 2022 and March 2023, there is still a high risk of a fuel recession.
On Tuesday, 29th November 2022, the European Space Agency (ESA) approved a three-year study into the viability of a space-based solar energy farm in space. The renewable energy system would orbit our Earth and beam down microwave energy, enough to match that of a power station. The solar farms would be a kilometre in length and provide 2000 homes energy per hour.
The meeting, which took place in Paris, was the first time ESA initiated a practical plan to develop the system under the Solaris Initiative. This was only one of the ESA’s many plans for environmental monitoring, space exploration and communications.
The massive space solar farms could provide stupendous amounts of energy, which would help minimise the risk of future energy shortages — especially as much of the world moves to green cars, transport and carbon-neutral economies.
Solar energy is being considered for space, rather than the Sahara Desert because there is a much more direct line to collect the Sun’s energy in space. There are no clouds, and there is no day cycle to obstruct the Sun.
Although this proposition sounds like something from Futurama or Black Mirror, the idea has been around for over 50 years. It just hasn’t been feasible until now. The change in possibility comes from the use of reusable rockets like Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 and other space-related innovations. There has also been the technological advancement of wirelessly beaming electricity from space to Earth.
The Solaris Initiative is a plan to identify whether the development of this idea is financially and environmentally viable. The Solaris team has already proven in principle that it is logical to transmit electricity safely from space to Earth; they next need to find a way of proving that ESA can transfer it safely and efficiently to Earth’s electricity grids.
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How Will A Space Solar Energy Farm Work?
There are many challenges the Solaris Initiative have yet to figure out before we send a 1km solar energy space station into Earth’s orbit, but here is a general idea of how the solar farm will work:
- The solar panels in Earth’s orbit will capture the direct energy released by the Sun. The Solaris project will collect the Sun’s power over a vast area in space.
- The satellite system will convert the sunlight into microwaves which are then beamed (transmitted) to Earth.
- The Earth’s receivers (antennas) convert microwaves to electricity.
- The electricity is sent to the power grid and into 2000 homes per hour.
How Far Away From Space Electricity Are We?
As part of the Solaris Initiative, engineers have sent 2 Kilowatts of power sourced from solar cells wirelessly to collectors with a 36-metre distance between them during a demonstration at Airbus in September. This is the first significant step in a long line of small steps that have taken place for the initiative to be successful. For solar farms to be able to feed our national grid, they will need to send gigawatts of power for thousands of miles. But, experts have concluded that it is entirely possible and no technical flaws would stop this from occurring.
The ESA is not the only space body looking to create solar energy farms in space; the US, Japan, China and the UK are also involved in this new leg of the space race. The UK body, Space Solar, has aimed to demonstrate beaming power from space within the next six years, commercially in the next nine years.
Independent of the ESA plan, a UK government assessment suggested that it is possible to have a satellite producing 2 gigawatts by 2040. This assessment lines up with that of the ESA’s estimate. Some scientists argue it could be done within the next decade, saying it could be our generation’s equivalent of the moon shot.
How Could Renewable Energy Sources In Space Help The Energy Crisis?
The issue with on-Earth renewable energy sources is that they can often take up much land, cause habitat loss, use a lot of local water sources, and fluctuate in efficiency due to sunlight levels and wind — making them less efficient than their fossil fuel counterparts. However, solar-powered farms counteract all this as they have direct access to sunlight and do not use any land or Earthly-water.
All of this makes space solar sources much more energy efficient, especially as they can run 24/7. This will allow a consistent energy source to the national grid and help relieve the ongoing systems. It also means that we are less likely to be blackmailed by countries like Russia or China – making the UK an independent energy economic country.
We asked Jonny Christie and Karl McArdle, co-CEOs of The Property Buying Company, for their input on how renewable energy sources like a solar energy farm in space could help improve the energy crisis and property market.
Jonny said, “In 2040, the world might be quite different as we would have moved away from non-renewable energy sources, petrol and diesel. I think the possibility of having a new renewable energy source is a great idea; it will minimise the risk of using landmass on Earth and dwindling water supplies. For the property market, it would cause a much more reliable energy source than outsourcing to countries abroad or relying on our power plants. In turn, this could balance the amount of renewable energy in the United Kingdom and stop energy blackouts.”
Karl said, “I think it’s important to note, however, that the government would operate the space solar panel system, so there wouldn’t be any direct value increase to homes powered by the space solar farms.”
“Recently, we have seen high search interest for solar panels and over 3,000 solar installations being carried out each week. This trend will only continue in the future, and with the Solar Initiative timelined to be operational by 2040, home & commercial solar panels should be our primary focus.”
Jonny said, “Although the Solaris Initiative will be great for the future, I agree, Karl; with growing market trends and the majority of UK residences wanting to be more sustainable, we should focus on how to save energy now. A few other great ways to prevent rising energy bills is to use smart technology like a nest hub or smart plugs and to get your home properly insulated.”