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The concept is not new, and several laboratories around the world are investigating the feasibility of this type of project. But Xi’an-based LONGi Green Energy Technology Company seems particularly advanced on the issue. Continuously harvesting solar energy through space-based solar panels and then relaying and harnessing it on Earth can help meet global energy demand without greenhouse gas emissions.
The idea is to eliminate the main drawback of solar panels, which is that they can only work when the sun is shining. Solar panels placed in the earth’s orbit can actually harness the sun’s energy permanently and not just on sunny days. The project could mark the beginning of a lasting collaboration between the solar sector and the Chinese space program. Wu Zhijian, president of the China Space Foundation, even mentions “off-planet” power plants.
The main difficulty of this project is not so much the design of the panels themselves, but the development of a system for wireless transmission of energy to ground-based receiving stations, which would be responsible for converting it into electricity. However, researchers from Xidian University in Shaanxi said earlier this year that they had successfully tested technology specifically designed to transmit solar energy from space. This is based on the conversion of sunlight into microwave rays.
A potential springboard to reach the climate goals
The system captures sunlight above the ground and then converts it into microwave beams, which are then transmitted through the air to a receiving station on the ground, where they can be converted into electricity. While experiments with the technology were only conducted at an altitude of 55 meters, the researchers hope that their system can be extended to cover the long distances between the orbiting panels and Earth.
LONGi’s new laboratory dedicated to the project, the LONGi Green Energy Future Energy Space Laboratory, will start by testing the use of its technology on Earth, in harsh environments, to assess its suitability for use in space programs, the company’s press release states. ” The real environment of outer space will be simulated on the ground and the changes in the relevant performance of the product will be monitored. “, explains the company. The lab will also study plans for energy and environmental monitoring satellites from space.
Note that CalTech is also working on the design of space solar panels and presented its first prototypes in 2017 – thanks to a donation of more than $100 million from Donald Bren, president of the Irvine Company. The first prototypes of the Space-Based Solar Power Project (SSPP) are expected to be launched in early 2023; their transmission system is also based on high frequency radio waves. Teams in Japan, Russia and India are also working on the subject, Bloomberg reports.
The UK government also plans to build a solar power plant in space by 2035. More than 50 British technology organizations have joined the UK Space Energy Initiative, launched in 2021, to explore the feasibility of this project, estimated at £17 billion. Experts believe a space power station could help Britain reach its goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Panels that can quickly deteriorate
According to the platform Our world in data, global primary energy consumption in 2021 was over 165,000 TWh; the share of solar energy was only 2700 TWh. If LONGi’s technology works, it could be revolutionary. However, this raises some problems. The weight of the solar panels was initially one of the main challenges to be solved, but the development of ultralight solar cells has made it possible to overcome this difficulty. But assembling a single space solar power plant would require several space shuttle launches – expensive to transport and generate significant greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the statements reported by ElectrekDerek Wise, editor at Space explored, rightly points out that while space solar panels offer two to three times the efficiency of ground-based solar panels, they will not make up for the tens of millions of dollars required for their launch. ” We already have too much space junk and large constellations of satellites in orbit. There are no rules to ensure that operators cooperate to avoid each other, and adding more will not improve the situation adds Seth Kurkowski, also an editor at Space Explored.
Additionally, not only can solar panels be damaged by space debris, but they are likely to degrade much faster than on Earth – because they will not be protected by Earth’s atmosphere and will be constantly exposed to extremely high radiation.
Despite particularly high investment costs and an uncertain return, some proponents of the project remain confident. ” LONGi Green Energy has greatly contributed to the significant reduction of photovoltaic costs, making solar cells the cheapest electrical energy in history said Martin Green, an expert in the development and use of solar energy and a professor at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Thanks to its space project, the company will no doubt continue to improve its ground-based technologies a little more. The technology could also be useful for a future sustainable human presence on the Moon or even Mars.