Space-Based Solar Power Stations

The last article in this series will cover the most ambitious gamble in solar electricity technology so far.

The Idea

A satellite is an object that orbits another. The moon is a satellite to the earth and the earth is a satellite to the sun as are all the other planets. In relation to the sun and the earth respectively, both the earth and the moon are satellites. In October 1957, the USSR launched the world's first artificial satellite into orbit. Since then, about 8,900 satellites from more than 40 countries have been launched into space.

An American, Peter Glaser, is credited as the father of the idea of a solar power satellite though the idea was touted before him in the science fiction novels of Isaac Asimov and in the ideas of Nikolai Tesla. According to his idea, which has developed significantly ever since, satellites built in the form of concentrator solar panels launched into space and orbiting the earth would be used as concentrators to collect sunlight and beam them down to earth either as lasers or in the form of microwave radiation. A terrestrial power station would receive the beam, convert it into useable electricity and afterwards transmit it into the grid for use.

Jamie Brown/The Sydney Morning Herald

The promise is enormous. One of such satellites with a kilometre square metre sized concentrator could continuously harvest up to 3.4GW of electricity. (Nigeria's power demands stands at 70GW.)

With the exception of Elon Musk, space affairs have largely been undertaken by national powers. All the powerful nations of the world, Japan, China, Russia, India, the UK, the EU and the US are actively pursuing SBSP satellites projects. The idea is both economically and financially viable and its possibilities are huge. A team at California Institute of Technology say they are aiming for the first launch of a test array later this year 2022 or 2023. China is said to be working towards launching a commercial scale solar power satellite by 2050.

There is no night-time in space so the satellites can generate electricity 99% of the time with very little negative impact on the environment. The hurdles are the high cost of manufacture and launch and the cost of materials. As of now, no objects of such sizes have been launched into space. (The International Space State weighs 400 tonnes but a typical satellite solar farm could weigh up to 1,000 tonnes.) There are multiple proposals of how to deal with this problem, including using materials from the Moon to manufacture the panels. Or using thousands of ultra light solar tiles. Or by sending equipment bulk into space alongside robots that will install them. But the interest in the idea beats the odds.

An Artist's Rendition of the Concept/US NAVAL RESEARCH LABORATORY

Space-based solar power stations are the next great alternative energy frontiers that has opened to mankind. It would be exciting to watch and see. Though this frontier is still closed to Nigeria and much of sub-Saharan Africa, when it eventually does become open, SolarKobo would design and install space solar power systems on order. While we wait, SolarKobo designs and install terrestrials solar power systems for homeowners and businesses in Lagos and throughout Nigeria.


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