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‘Dramatic’ fall in launch costs could make space-based solar power viable, says IMechE chief executive

Professional Engineering

Space-based solar power systems could even provide energy at night time (pictured) (Credit: Frazer-Nash Consultancy)
Space-based solar power systems could even provide energy at night time (pictured) (Credit: Frazer-Nash Consultancy)

An “absolutely dramatic” decrease in space launch costs is causing a fundamental shift in the industry, the chief executive of the IMechE has said – and it could enable some ground-breaking new technology.

Speaking in the first session of this week’s Aerospace and Defence webinar series this morning (28 November), Dr Alice Bunn OBE said that the fall in costs could make space-based solar power (SBSP) economically viable.

The technology concept, which is being investigated by the European Space Agency (ESA) and other industry heavyweights, would use giant 2km-wide satellites in geostationary orbit to constantly harvest sunlight. That energy would then be converted into low-power density microwaves, which would be beamed down to receiver stations on Earth. 

While many challenges remain before a working system is practical, Dr Bunn said that the system could become increasingly appealing as other energy sources such as wind and nuclear come under increasing pressure to provide more electricity as ‘net zero’ targets draw closer.

“The huge advantage of space-based solar power is you can put it in an orbit where it’s constantly receiving sunlight, so you get that baseload provision of power. You overcome some of the variability challenges of wind, or ground-based solar power,” Dr Bunn said.

“It does become a really, really interesting prospect, and each one of these satellites would be capable of producing about a gigawatt a day, so playing really quite a significant contribution to our overall energy requirements.”

There are sceptics, Dr Bunn said, and numerous challenges – although fears of a ‘death ray’ are unfounded, she said, with the maximum intensity of the microwave beam only about a quarter of the midday sun.

Other than the engineering challenges, potential barriers could include regulatory and legal hurdles, and a possible lack of political support.

Asked about the carbon cost of deploying and maintaining a space-based solar array compared to the emissions reductions benefits, Dr Bunn acknowledged that the concept is at “such an early stage.”

She continued: “There is so much ahead. Much like every other technology, we have to be really, really conscious of as we call it the ‘system of systems’. So it’s absolutely right that we have to consider all of those upfront manufacturing costs and the embedded carbon in there, all the way through to the benefit that we would get back from the energy.

“The same of course is true of wind power… Every single sector has to take this into account if we’re going to achieve net zero.”

Dr Bunn’s presentation, “Finding the opportunities in the challenge of space”, also gave a run-through of the UK industry, its upcoming launch capability, and how it is expected to grow in future. Watch it on demand here

Navigate a turbulent future by attending Aerospace & Defence (28 November – 2 December). Register for FREE today

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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