£4.3m for space-based solar power

Government money for UK universities and tech companies to drive forward innovation and boost the country’s energy security. 

The idea is at once very simple and completely out of this world. Solar panels fitted to satellites can collect energy from the Sun. This would then be transmitted down to us on the Earth’s surface using wireless technology. 

Photo showing NASA small satellite duo deploy from space station into Earth orbit, photo by NASA

Such arrays can be much larger than they can be on Earth because, well, there’s more space in space. The Sun is also visible 99% of the time, meaning a continuous collection of energy. 

At least, that’s the theory.  

The UK is one of several countries, including Japan and the United States, committed to space-based solar power. Just this month, scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) claimed a world-first by successfully transmitting ‘detectable’ levels of solar power generated in space to ground level. 

That might not sound much and this technology is obviously at an early stage. Yet space-based solar has huge potential to aid the UK’s energy security, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and drive down household bills, providing solar power all year round – because the Sun will be visible to space-based solar arrays for more than 99% of the time. 

In 2021, an independent study found that space-based solar power could generate up to 10GW of electricity a year by 2050, equal to a quarter of the UK’s current demand.  

‘Space-based solar energy farms could deliver clean energy day and night far more efficiently and, of course, in all weathers,’ said Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, at London Tech Week this week. Mr Shapps was announcing £4.3m of government funding for UK universities and tech companies working in this area. 

Eight projects will share the money, which comes from the government’s Space Based Solar Power Innovation Competition, part of the flagship £1bn Net Zero Innovation Portfolio. 

Recipients include Cambridge University, which will develop ultra-lightweight solar panels for the satellites able to function in the high-radiation conditions of space. Meanwhile, a team at Queen Mary University in London is working on a wireless system for transmitting collected power to Earth. 

It sounds extraordinary, like something from Star Trek – as Mr Shapps acknowledged in a statement accompanying the announcement. 

‘I want the UK to boldly go where no country has gone before,’ he said, ‘boosting our energy security by getting our power directly from space. 

‘By winning this new space race, we can transform the way we power our nation and provide cheaper, cleaner and more secure energy for generations to come.’  

Dr Mamatha Maheshwarappa, Payload Systems Lead at the UK Space Agency, says: ‘Space technology and solar energy have a long history – the need to power satellites was a key driver in increasing the efficiency of solar panels which generate electricity for homes and businesses today. 

‘There is significant potential for the space and energy sectors to work together to support the development of space-based solar power, and the UK Space Agency has contributed £1 million to these innovative projects to help take this revolutionary concept to the next level.’ 

Professor Xiadong Chen of the Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) Antennas & Electromagnetics Research Laboratory adds that the funding, ‘gives us the opportunity to extend our work to explore how the latest microwave technology can be used to develop cost-effective solutions to deliver net-zero using the abundant solar energy resources found in outer space. 

‘We look forward to working with the UK space industry and others to develop solutions that ultimately will be of great benefit to mankind.’ 

In related news, a report from UK Space Agency highlights significant R&D investment, established infrastructure and skilled STEM workforce as factors that put the UK at the forefront of space. 

Photo from NASA.


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