Reaching new heights: Is space-based solar power a viable net-zero solution?

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  • SBSP beams solar radiation to Earth via microwaves providing a renewable energy solution with no downtime
  • Frazer-Nash reports it is technically and economically viable, but up to GBP 16.3 billion needed to fund UK offering
  • UK’s innovation programme aims to entice sectors to enter the field via a GBP 6 million funding opportunity
  • Globally, the race is on to see which country can produce a viable SBSP solution within the next 20 years

Behind the scenes of the conventional renewables industry, work is progressing to develop a scalable and viable alternative to land-based solar power. Space-based solar power (SBSP) was a concept first coined in a science fiction novel of the 1970s. Fast forward 50 years, it appears that the notion of beaming solar power from space to generate electricity could become reality.

After conducting a lengthy study in 2021, consultancy Frazer-Nash reported SBSP was “both viable and economically competitive,” despite the concept being in its infancy. The study found SBSP could deliver a levelised cost of electricity between GBP 35/MWh and GBP 79/MWh, making it “a highly attractive proposition for the UK’s energy mix,” the report said. However, it estimated an 18-year development plan in the UK could cost between GBP 7.5 billion (USD 9.3 billion) and GBP 16.3 billion, meaning significant funding is needed to progress the field.

“This is not something that can be done by one company or one nation,” Martin Soltau, chair of SBSP NGO the Space Energy Initiative (SEI) and co-CEO of SBSP developer Space Solar, tells Gas Matters. “The concept is to harvest solar energy in a high-Earth orbit and convert it into electricity,” he clarifies. “Solar panels beam microwaves down to a ground receiver where they are converted into electricity and then fed into the grid. It can typically produce 2 GW of AC power into the grid. So, it’d be treated like a large power station, but it’s completely renewable.”

The benefits are seemingly undeniable: cheap power, increased renewable capacity – solar insulation in space is 40% higher than the sunniest place on earth at midday – and no risk of downtime or intermittency. Soltau says SBSP could harvest 13 times more energy than a panel on earth over the course of a year.

But, as the Frazer-Nash report highlights, the road to commercial viability for SBSP is long. Soltau’s Space Solar has embarked on a 12-year plan to commission its first 2-GW power stations in space. Phase two of the project, Soltau says, is pivotal, as by the plan’s sixth year it expects to demonstrate end-to-end power beaming of several megawatts of power. “Thereafter we’re scaling up. After year nine, we’ll have a solar power system in the 100-MW class. And then, after year 12, we will go to the big gigawatt scale system,” he says.

Interest to invest

Currently, the biggest threat facing SBSP is a lack of investment. Soltau admits that long lead times for commercial viability have so far deterred venture capitalists and energy companies. “We’re trying to bring together public and private financing in new and imaginative ways because there are all sorts of challenges here,” he says. “Although most of the major IOCs know of the concept now, it’s a bit of a journey from awareness and studying this properly to doing due diligence and working out where they might play in the value chain, strategy and so forth. And at this stage there are a number of programmes globally where there is small-scale research going on – but there aren’t fielded systems.”

In January, as part of a feature on Shell’s recent history for Gas Matters, two City analysts highlighted the poor returns still being experienced by renewables businesses. This has led to an industry-wide reluctance to invest heavily at this stage. “The renewables business is deeply in the red at the moment in terms of their adjusted EBITDA numbers,” investment director for AJ Bell Russ Mould said at the time. “It will be interesting to see how patient oil and gas loyalists are with that degree of loss and when they start gently prodding for a return on that invested capital.”

Chris Kuplent, head of European energy equity research at Bank of America added: “The nature of very capital intensive and general long lead time projects is, if you start investing today, you won’t tend to see much output in terms of electrons or molecules for some time, and as a result all you’ll recognise is the capex and not much cashflow in return.”

To try and counter the energy sector’s skepticism, the UK government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) launched a grant programme last July, with the deadline extended in September, offering up to GBP 6 million to entrants developing technologies progressing the field of SBSP. BEIS is primed to announce the outcome of the competition in April, which will see successful applicants transition to Phase B of the programme to develop demonstrations of their technologies.

“Because [SBSP] is at such an early stage, having some sort of demonstration can increase the confidence of the energy sector and investors to show them it is viable now,” Noramalina Mansor, senior energy engineer for BEIS, says.

Phase B of the competition is expected to help de-risk a multitude of the key technologies within SBSF, including wireless power transfer and robotics. By addressing the key risks within the field, while discovering ways to mitigate them early on, the UK government is expecting to generate more confidence in the market to attract commercial interest through large-scale and long-term investments.

For her part, Mamatha Maheshwarappa, payload systems lead at the UK Space Agency, says the government’s work on SBSP has recently attracted interest from Saudi Arabian investors. “We're talking about GBP 10-15 billion in funding required, and a development programme that could take 15-20 years. That can be sped up only if the commercial and private sectors come into this,” she adds.

Competition entrants were invited to contribute innovations comprising technology readiness levels (TRL) 2 to 6. According to NASA, TRLs are a type of measurement system used to assess the maturity level of a particular technology. When a technology is at TRL 1, “scientific research is beginning and those results are being translated into future research and development,” a TRL 6 technology has a fully functional prototype or representational model, while, once a technology has been “flight proven” during a successful mission, it can be called TRL 9.

Despite slow movement in SBSP’s initial investment, Soltau’s SEI has attracted interest from a host of high-profile entities, from utilities such as National Grid and EDF to global advisors Deloitte and Frazer-Nash and academics from Imperial College London. “National Grid has been great at actively looking at things like ground-based rectifying antennas,” highlights Soltau. “All the companies we’ve spoken to are thinking creatively and outside their normal remit.”

A main priority for SEI is educating the energy sector on the opportunities it could have in monetizing its involvement in SBSP as the systems required will complement traditional renewables. Soltau claims wind farms could be viable spots for land-based rectifying antennas, or rectennas, as grid connections are already built in.

“Everyone recognises how incredibly challenging net zero is going to be with our current technologies,” explains Soltau. “Whenever you’re disrupting and bringing a new technology in, there will always be winners and losers, and I think everybody’s wondering where they can fit and play in this space.”

Commercial opportunities include hosting various hardware systems like ground rectennas, satellites, beaming technology and robotics, as well as B2B opportunities, made possible by dispatchable power. “Systems are likely going to be operated by different suppliers and so there will be surface opportunities, technology and sales opportunities, then spinouts from power, beaming and robotics. We’re going to have new industries springing up around this,” says Soltau.

The wait to regulate

In the meantime, another hurdle that hinders early-stage investment is the lack of a regulatory process to support SBSP, particularly around power beaming requirements, space orbit and protecting civil aviation. The government has hosted initial talks with various regulators, but Maheshwarappa believes there should be more international collaboration around establishing the rules and regulations.

To accelerate these efforts, the government has joined various international entities working within space. Maheshwarappa says the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) has provided a great deal of knowledge transfer, while SEI has also collaborated with Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). “Collectively, there’s a real urgency to get to net zero and I think regulators will be able to come together and enable this,” Soltau notes.

Across the Atlantic, investment in SBSP has been championed by Californian real estate mogul Donald Bren – apparently after he read an article on the concept in 2011. In 12 years, Bren, chairman of Irvine Company, has contributed USD 100 million to research carried out in the field by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

In January, the Caltech SBSP team, led by professor of electrical and medical engineering Ali Hajimiri, launched a prototype device into orbit to generate SBSP at a very minute scale. Data will be collected from the prototype for a few months to review the outcome, but Hajimiri believes the concept could be commercially viable in as little as seven years.

“No matter what happens, this prototype is a major step forward,” Hajimiri said in a Caltech statement published in January. “There are still many risks, but having gone through the whole process has taught us valuable lessons. We believe the space experiments will provide us with plenty of additional useful information that will guide the project as we continue to move forward,” he added.

Various programmes are ongoing across the globe, as competition to develop SBSP technologies has hastened. China and Japan are funding their own projects, as well as the EU. Within the private sector, US aerospace and defense giant Northrop Grumman has developed a test environment to simulate SBSP and is working on a series of flight experiments. Another firm, Virtus Solis Technologies in Michigan, has built a proof of concept wireless power transfer link to connect solar power satellites to ground stations.

SpaceX is also helping to advance the field of SBSP as it scales its space launch efforts and operates reusable rockets like the Falcon 9. According to the company’s website, the rocket has made 147 reflights. “The rate of launch already being demonstrated by SpaceX is getting towards what we need for SBSP, but we will need a big step up in launch rate and capacity,” Soltau suggests. The Elon Musk-owned operation also provides what it calls a “rideshare program” providing an opportunity to third parties to send payloads like satellites into orbit for a price based on weight.

Its website provides a rideshare pricing calculator, boasting “affordable rates” of USD 275,000 for 50 kg, with additional mass at USD 5,500/kg. The firm has sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) launches every four months. This was the method Caltech used to send its SBSP prototype into orbit in January. 

Crucial elements

The reality for SBSP is that, as a colossal engineering feat and disruptive technology opportunity, pushback from various angles is inevitable. But the first and most important step in SBSP becoming a reality is international investment to fund its development, with education acting as a crucial element in gaining the interest of governments and major investors. “A development profile such as this is fraught with funding challenges,” Frazer-Nash’s economic feasibility study said. The report also highlights the need for public funding to “help mitigate some of the programme risk that would otherwise be borne by the private sector.”

Despite this, Soltau remains optimistic about the future of SBSP, offering a reminder that, for many years before net-zero requirements put pressure on the sector to scale and improve their reliability, conventional renewables were also seen as an unattractive proposition. - NM

Contact the editor:

Kostya Tsolakis
[email protected]

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