Wait A Minute… Solar Panels in Space?
Let’s talk about outer space, more specifically Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP).
Space-Based…what? How is that even possible?
The process can be explained pretty simply. Giant solar panels are launched into orbit around the Earth to absorb the sun’s radiation, the panels then convert this energy into microwaves. The captured energy is beamed back down to Earth, the waves are received by antennas, and eventually converted into electricity.
This topic seems like an incredible discovery that evolved from the buildup of solar panels; however, this idea isn’t new.
The first discussion of Space-Based Solar Power was introduced in 1968 and patented in 1971 by Dr. Peter Glaser when he claimed SBSP was “technologically possible”.
The idea of SBSP has been talked about for almost 50 years now, with plenty of money flowing in from innovative companies, wealthy sponsors, and international governments.
So, what’s the big fuss?
Depending on the type of orbit the panels are launched into, SBSP could supply 24/7 clean energy to our Earth. This would solve the intermittency problem that hinders terrestrial (on-land) solar panels’ energy performance. Terrestrial solar panels only collect energy when the sun is shining, resulting in zero electricity being produced for extended periods of time. SBSP does not face weather challenges, atmospheric absorption, or day/night cycles, which essentially eliminates the intermittency concern. One solar panel in space could completely change the game on how much clean energy can be produced on a daily basis.
With every great idea comes a set of challenges.
First, space launch costs are incredibly high. Depending on the weight of the transport, it could cost more than $1 billion to launch a solar panel into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GSO). GSO matches the Earth’s rotational orbit, therefore is constantly exposed to solar illumination. For a significantly less price, a company could also launch a solar panel that has an alternate orbit, such as Low Earth Orbit and Medium Earth Orbit. However, both of these orbits face periods of darkness, therefore significantly reducing electricity production.
Potential Solution: Scalability is the main argument here. As investment increases, prices will come down. The rise of space investment could push down the prices to launch structures into space, including solar panels.
Second, manufacturing and maintenance are extraordinarily high. The company or country operating the device would have to build technology that could carry out Operations and Maintenance (O&M) on these solar panels. You may think, what type of maintenance would these panels need in space? Well, outer space debris is fairly common. One strike from a small piece of rock could result in catastrophic damage.
Potential Solution: With the rise of Artificial Intelligence, it has become a reality that robots will play some sort of role in business moving forward. Researchers and entrepreneurs have thrown out the idea of using robots to manufacture solar panels in space. Additionally, these robots would have the potential to repair a damaged solar panel. Of course, this is just a theory, but it takes human-related challenges out of the equation.
Third, space laws and regulations. Who owns the space that these solar panels would take up? Is it a free-for-all or whoever gets there first? Not quite. There are multiple organizations and treaties in place that govern what can be blasted into space.
Potential Solution: It will take many bilateral and multilateral treaties before space-based power is ready for deployment. I think development would have to come from a multitude of countries working together, with funding from multiple streams.
Conclusion: I could go on and list numerous other challenges that this industry would face, however I think there are just too many challenges to develop space-based power at the moment. Even though the demand would be extremely high for 24/7 clean power, and the market would be overflowing, it is just too expensive at the moment to entertain the idea much further. There are numerous articles online that go specifically into cost, orbit launches, technological design, and other interesting factors in this industry. I highly recommend reading up on them if space-based power intrigues you.
Thank you for reading. Leave a comment or questions below, I would love to interact with you!
Disclaimer: This article is my own personal research and opinions. It does not contain financial advice or involve my employer.