energy politics technology

Do we need solar power from space?

There was a slightly unexpected announcement this month that the British government has commissioned some new research into space-based solar power. It’s not a new idea – Isaac Asimov dreamt it up in the 1940s, writing a short story about a robot that works on a space station “established to feed solar energy to the planets.” (In true Sci-fi blindspot tradition, the story has sentient robots and space-based solar power, but engineers still work out calculations manually with a slide rule.)

The idea has swung between science and fiction and back again over time, but with the costs of space transport falling, a handful of countries are investigating it. Japan have been toying with the idea since the 1980s. NASA tinkered with the idea for decades and eventually discarded it. In 2019 China announced that they were actually going to build a space power station, though since they plan to do it ‘by 2050’, that’s not saying much just yet. So far nobody that I’m aware of has actually tried it, though it is being attempted in a physical experiment for the first time right now, with a small satellite the size of a pizza box launched earlier this year.

The theory is that the sun shines all the time in space, and photovoltaic panels are more efficient because there is no atmosphere or clouds to obscure them. Build a huge field of solar panels in orbit and you can then wirelessly relay the power to earth in the form of radio waves.

On the other hand, you’re building in space, which is fiendishly expensive. Nobody has ever attempted a space station on the scale we’d be talking about for it to make any kind of commercial sense. And commercial sense is the big issue here – there’s no point in doing it unless it can compete with the solar panels we already have on the ground.

“Why are you bothering to send them to bloody space?” asks Elon Musk of those panels. “If anyone should like space solar power, it should be me. I have a rocket company and I have a solar company.” And yet he calls it “the stupidest thing ever”.

Still, I’m not against investigating it. There’s no harm in thinking decades ahead, and a little government funding at this point could support some useful science. However, what annoys me is the failure, once again, to invest in the proven technologies we already have. This graph shows net additions in solar generating capacity in Britain for the last ten years, and projected growth for the next five years:

As you can see, solar power grew sharply in the first years of the last decade, and then that growth collapsed. The government turned its back on solar power, unpredictably dropping subsidies in sharp cuts rather than winding them down in ways that the industry could plan for and adapt to. It practically destroyed the sector in the process. The number of new installations this year essentially shows a wasted decade.

In other words, the government is exploring solar power from space while ignoring solar power on earth.

This seems to be par for the course from a government that is more interested in making announcements than in delivering the goods. See the focus on a £100 billion Covid ‘moonshot’ to test everyone in the country, while failing to maintain a functioning test and trace system. Or investing mightily in floating wind turbines while obstructing onshore wind power. Presumably solar power from space is a glamorous new technology that ‘plucky Britain’ can hang its hat on and claim global leadership, while existing PV is just something that Conservative MPs don’t like the look of on their neighbours’ roofs.

I’m not going to object to the current study, but it would be stupid to take this science fiction idea any further while neglecting the PV industry that exists in reality. If you hear any politician talking about solar power from space, tell them to support the industry we have on the ground first.

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