Countries are desperately looking for a way to cover their future energy needs in the most climate-friendly way possible. China is also relying on solar power plants floating in space. The first prototype is scheduled to start as early as 2028. Other states are pursuing similar projects.
The world has an energy problem. While coal, gas and oil are rich in energy, they are wreaking havoc on the climate. One possible solution: solar power from space. Available 24/7 and without space problems. At least that's the theory. In China, this vision seems to be being vigorously pursued: In 2028, the People's Republic wants to start its ambitious space solar power plant program. This is reported by the "South China Morning Post" with reference to a study in the journal "Chinese Space Science and Technology".
In a first phase, China wants to launch a satellite that will test the wireless transmission of energy from a height of 400 kilometers to the ground. For this purpose, solar energy is to be converted into microwaves or lasers, which are then to be directed to fixed locations on earth or mobile satellites. This first space solar power plant is said to have an output of 10 kilowatts, which can supply a few households.
Of course, that's not enough - the whole thing is scalable and can "make an effective contribution" to achieving climate neutrality, according to the study. The South China Morning Post report points to a Chinese space expert who said the potential for military applications and transportation systems - such as hypersonic flight - may have fueled China's interest in a space solar power plant.
However, it is not easy to build such a power plant. The study enumerates some challenges: For example, transmitting high-power microwaves over a long distance requires an antenna hundreds or even thousands of meters in size. Solar winds, gravity or the power plant's thrusters could also significantly affect the efficiency and accuracy of the energy transfer.
Other problems are the effective cooling of important components, the study says, and the construction of a gigantic infrastructure in Earth orbit that requires multiple launches. Penetrating the atmosphere with high-frequency radiation in all weather conditions and preventing damage from asteroids, space debris or a targeted attack also pose challenges for the developers.
According to the new study, a full-fledged Chinese space solar power plant will be built in four phases. Two years after the first launch, i.e. in 2030, another, more powerful satellite is to be sent into a geostationary orbit about 36,000 km from Earth in order to carry out further experiments there. From 2035, a ten-megawatt power plant will also supply energy for military and civilian purposes. Finally, by the year 2050, the capacity of the space solar power plant is to increase to two gigawatts, which is more than the most powerful nuclear power plant. Costs are to be reduced to a commercially affordable level.
Not only China is working on space solar power plants. Great Britain, for example, wants to implement a similar project by 2035 - the UK Space Energy Initiative (SEI) is the name of the project in which several technology giants and universities are involved. The power plant will also be placed in a geostationary orbit about 36,000 km from Earth and will be several kilometers in size. This power plant should also deliver two gigawatts of power.
In the USA, the United States Naval Research Laboratory has already tested solar energy production in space with a Boeing X-37B space plane. The California Institute of Technology plans to install a $100 million space-based solar energy test facility by 2023.
(This article was first published on Thursday, June 09, 2022.)