European Space Agency is considering major investment in space-based solar power

"It's the stupidest thing ever," Elon Musk said several years ago.
Baba Tamim
Space sci-fi: ISS floating in space near Earth.
ISS floating in space near Earth.

dima_zel/iStock 

European Space Agency's (ESA) director general has proposed the development of Europe’s first space-based solar power system to be constructed in 2025.

ESA, an intergovernmental conglomerate of 22 member states, will decide on the director's plan in November this year, according to a report published in Ars Technica.

"It will be up to Europe, ESA, and its Member States to push the envelope of technology to solve one of the most pressing problems for people on Earth of this generation," said Josef Aschbacher, director general of the Space Agency.

Europe is seriously contemplating developing space-based solar power to boost its energy independence and lower greenhouse gas emissions, the ESA leader said this week.

Aschbacher aims to garner support and funding for the Solaris Program during the council meeting, advocating solar energy from space as a key to energy de-carbonization in Europe.

ESA commissioned two independent costs vs. benefits studies from its Consulting groups based in the United Kingdom and Germany. Evaluating the costs and advantages of creating space-based solar power, the studies were published this week.

How does space-based solar power work?

In theory, space-based solar power is a simple concept.

Satellites in orbit far above the Earth's atmosphere collect solar energy and convert it into current; this energy is then beamed back to Earth via microwaves, where it is captured by photovoltaic cells or antennas and converted into electricity for residential or industrial use.

The primary advantages of gathering solar power from space rather than on the ground are that there is no night or cloud cover to interfere with the collection, and the solar incidence is much higher than in northern European latitudes.

The strategy

Europe currently consumes approximately 3,000 Terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year, and the studies describe massive facilities in geostationary orbit that could meet approximately one-quarter to one-third of that demand.

TWh is a unit of energy used for expressing the amount of produced energy, electricity, and heat.

These systems' development and deployment would cost hundreds of billions of euros. To enable space-based solar power, a constellation of dozens of massive, sunlight-gathering satellites located 36,000 kilometers from Earth would be required.

Each of these satellites would be 10 or more times heavier than the International Space Station (ISS), which weighs 450 metric tons and took over a decade to build in low Earth orbit.

Launching the components of these satellites would ultimately necessitate hundreds, if not thousands, of heavy-lift rocket launches.

"Using projected near-term space lift capability, such as SpaceX’s Starship, and current launch constraints, delivering one satellite into orbit would take between 4 and 6 years," reported Frazer-Nash, one of the two consulting firms.

"Providing the number of satellites to satisfy the maximum contribution that SBSP could make to the energy mix in 2050 would require a 200-fold increase over current space-lift capacity."

European Space Agency is considering major investment in space-based solar power
Screengrab from the ESA's proposal.

ESA 

The disadvantages

Tesla head, Elon Musk, is well-known for his utter contempt for such technology.

"It's the stupidest thing ever. If anyone should like space solar power, it should be me. I've got a rocket company and a solar company," Musk said several years ago.

“You're going to have a real hard time even getting to 50 percent. So just put that solar cell on Earth."

And he is not alone; according to physicist Casey Handmer, space-based solar power is at least "three orders of magnitude" more expensive than terrestrial-based energy sources.

"I can relax assumptions all day," Handmer wrote.

"I can grant 100 percent transmission efficiency, $10/kg orbital launch costs, complete development and procurement cost parity, and a crippling land shortage on Earth. Even then, space-based solar power still won’t be able to compete.”

The studies ordered by the European Space Agency do little to allay the principal worry of those who oppose it, according to the critics.

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