Europe is seriously considering a major investment in space solar energy

Increase / Solar energy from space is about collecting sunlight from the Earth’s orbit and then sending it to the surface where it is needed.

Andreas Streuer / ESA

Europe is seriously considering developing solar energy in space to increase its energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the leader of the European Space Agency said this week.

“It will be up to Europe, ESA and its member states to move the technological envelope to solve one of the most pressing problems facing the people of this generation.” He said Josef Aschbacher, director general of the space agency, an intergovernmental organization of 22 member states.

Previously, the space agency commissioned studies to consulting groups based in the UK and Germany to assess the costs and benefits of expanding solar energy in space. ESA released this study this week to provide policy makers in Europe with technical and curriculum information.

Aschbacher is working on building support in Europe for solar energy from space as a key to decarbonising energy and will present its Solaris program to the ESA Council in November. This board sets the priorities and funding for the ESAs. According to Aschbacher’s plans, the development of the photovoltaic system would start in 2025.

In concept, solar energy from space is quite simple. Satellites orbiting high above the Earth’s atmosphere collect solar energy and convert it into electricity; this energy is then sent back to Earth via microwaves, where it is captured by photovoltaic cells or antennas and converted into electricity for domestic or industrial use. The main benefits of collecting solar energy from space and not on earth is that there are no nights or clouds to interfere with the collection; and insolation is much higher than in the northern latitudes of the European continent.

Plans

Two consulting reports discuss the technology development and financing needed to get the space energy system online. Europe currently consumes around 3,000 TWh of electricity per year, and reports describe huge facilities in geostationary orbit that can meet around a quarter to a third of this demand. The development and implementation of these systems would cost hundreds of billions of euros.

Why so much? Because facilitating the use of solar energy in space would require a constellation of dozens of huge solar-collecting satellites located 36,000 km from Earth. Each of these satellites would have a mass 10 times greater or greater than the International Space Station’s mass, which is 450 metric tons, and would require more than ten years to assemble in low Earth orbit. The launch of the components of these satellites would ultimately require hundreds or, more likely, thousands of high-payload rocket launches.

The report by the British company Frazer-Nash even includes a photograph of the Falcon Heavy SpaceX rocket and a diagram of its spacecraft. Reports also note that the launch of a cosmic solar energy program could spur the development of a reusable super-heavy rocket for this purpose in Europe. The bottom line is that the commissioning requirements will be enormous.

“Taking advantage of projected short-term space lift capabilities such as the SpaceX spacecraft and the current launch restrictions, it would take 4 to 6 years to get one satellite into orbit,” said the Frazer-Nash report. “Delivering the number of satellites to meet the maximum contribution SBSP could make to the energy mix in 2050 would require a 200-fold increase compared to the current capacity of space lifts.”

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