Solar energy is one of the most promising pathways toward decarbonization, but it’s facing some massive challenges that will have to be addressed quickly if we’re going to curb emissions quickly enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. First, we’re running out of space to build new solar farms. Large solar farms can span thousands of acres, and are facing contentious land-use conflicts around the world. Second, solar power is variable, meaning that it depends on the weather, the time of day, and the tilt of the Earth. This makes it extremely hard for solar to match the reliability and security of fossil fuels, which can be easily controlled to produce exactly how much power we need when we need it. But what if there was a single solar power innovation that could solve both of these game-changing problems in one fell swoop?
The answer: sending solar farms into space. Really. Scientists have recently made massive progress toward building solar farms where they don’t conflict with any other land-use priorities, or deal with pesky inconveniences like sunsets and seasons. While it sounds like something ripped from the pages of a science fiction dimestore novel, space-age solar is extremely and increasingly close to becoming a scalable reality.
“Thanks to increasingly affordable infrastructure and the falling cost of space launches, there is a new space race unfolding around the world,” Oilprice reported earlier this year. Researchers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and China, have all been advancing the science of orbital solar farms in recent years.
In June of this year, scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) made history when their experimental Space Solar Power Demonstrator (SSPD-1) successfully beamed solar power from space back down to Earth. Another promising initiative from the European Space Agency (ESA) is on track to be fully ready for deployment by just 2025, and on the other side of the world, “China has announced plans to put a megawatt-scale demonstration unit in low Earth orbit in 2028, before deploying another system to a more distant geosynchronous orbit in 2030,” according to reporting earlier this year from Nature.
But a new breakthrough from the Universities of Surrey and Swansea could have positively disruptive implications for all of these projects, and the future of space-based solar farms as a whole. Their most recent experiment has managed to solve some of the biggest problems standing between experimentation and commercialization of space-age solar: cost and durability.
Until now, building and launching solar panels all the way into orbit has been extremely costly. And then, once they get there, they have to withstand punishing amounts of radiation. Both of these factors spell disaster for the commercial potential of such an endeavor. But the new results from Surrey and Swansea published in the journal Acta Astronautica on October 24 indicate that these challenges can be overcome, as they “show that the production of a new, lightweight solar panel is possible — and that it could withstand solar radiation for more than six years, generating power even after 30,000 orbits of the planet.”
“We are very pleased that a mission designed to last one year is still working after six. These detailed data show the panels have resisted radiation and their thin-film structure has not deteriorated in the harsh thermal and vacuum conditions of space," lead author and emeritus professor of spacecraft engineering at the University of Surrey Space Centre Craig Underwood told Salon. Not only are the panels bigger, lighter, and cheaper to produce than current technology, they’re also more powerful per cell in terms of energy output. And, crucially, they’re flexible, making their launch and deployment more efficient and less costly.
The significance of this breakthrough is hard to understate. The ability to scale solar power production at a commercial level in outer space would solve some of the trickiest issues facing the green energy transition. Meeting national climate goals on a global scale will require an unprecedented expansion of solar energy production in terms of both scale and speed. As we race against the clock to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and governments throw increasing amounts of financial and policy support behind renewable energy expansion, we’re seeing a historic solar boom – but the current rate of growth is unsustainable unless we’re able to seriously reconfigure the industry that’s currently held up by land-use conflicts, energy storage limitations, and regulatory hurdles. Removing solar expansion from these earthly complications is a very hopeful prospect indeed.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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