Inside Business: Asimov’s Vision for Space Solar Power Is More Than Science Fiction
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In his short story “Reason,” published in 1941, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov described a universe in which humans harvest solar energy in space to sustain life on earth.
Eighty years later, and in the midst of a global climate emergency, the idea of capturing the sun’s energy with vast solar panels in space and sending it back to earth via microwaves could become reality.
China, the United States, Europe and Japan are all developing projects. Beijing even plans to have a functioning system by the 2030s, according to China-based media reports.
In September, the UK government will signal that it is also keen to explore the potential of the technology. He will publish the results of a new study examining how space solar power could help Britain achieve a net zero economy by 2050.
The report, prepared by the Frazer-Nash consultants with input from European companies such as Airbus and Thales Alenia Space, concludes that space solar power is not only technologically possible, it argues that the lifetime cost per megawatt hour could be half that of nuclear. Power.
With a single power plant in Britain (Hinkley Point C) expected to generate costs of £ 23 billion, the report estimate of £ 16 billion to develop the technology and launch an operational 2 GW solar satellite seems like a good deal. Satellites after £ 3.6bn make the proposition even more appealing.
Then again, if the private sector is to help foot the bill, nation states will also need to revise the legal regime that governs the use of space.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is woefully inadequate for the rapidly emerging business opportunities. Individual nations are now starting to fill the void with their own rules on trade rights and responsibilities. This could be a recipe for chaos, warns Rachael O’Grady, space partner at law firm Mayer Brown.
Of course, such an endeavor would be difficult to undertake on their own for most countries. Given that technology could be a game-changer in the face of the global climate crisis, this project offers a strong case for development in an international partnership.
Obviously, it’s cheaper to build solar farms on land. But space solar power, unlike its intermittent terrestrial counterpart, can be delivered around the clock to any point on the planet. It can provide a production capacity base where reliable green options are limited.
Until recently, setting up such an infrastructure in space was far too expensive. But Elon Musk’s partly reusable Falcon rocket and smaller satellites changed the equation. A 2018 NASA study estimated that the typical cost of launching had been divided by 20 over the previous decade.
Other enabling technologies have also advanced. A New Zealand company is already experimenting with the wireless transfer of electricity over several kilometers. The orbits above the earth are much further apart, admits Martin Soltau, space manager at Frazer-Nash. But the underlying physics is well understood.
The size of the satellite presents the biggest challenge, which in the Frazer-Nash scenario spans an unprecedented width of 1.7 km. Such a scale ensures efficient transmission of energy to the earth.
It may seem impossible. But John Mankins, a former NASA physicist, devised the SPS-Alpha concept using the system of systems approach. A satellite could include thousands of small solar power plants, assembled in space by robots, for which the technology is also evolving rapidly.
No doubt questions will arise about the vulnerability of the system, its maintenance and its contribution to the growing space debris crisis. These and other questions will require further study.
In addition, there is no guarantee that space solar energy will be economically viable. However, even if costs rise, any innovation in areas such as power beams and robotics could pay off, even if solar satellites do not.
In November, the UK hosts the world climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow. The theme of collaboration deserves discussion. The energy and space industries will also have to participate. Companies such as BP, Shell and EDF have apparently shown interest.
Space solar power doesn’t have to remain science fiction, any more than commercial space travel once was. Yes, there is a risk that promising technologies such as space solar power will not work. And the failure to reach an international agreement on an effective legal framework could make the space hostile not only to human life, but to human prosperity.
But with the right encouragement and the right planning, this renewable energy source can work throughout our lifetimes.
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