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12 September 2022

Space-based solar power could help Europe reach net zero – study

A space-based solar power programme could net Europe more than €180bn in benefits and reduce its reliance on imported fossil fuels, finds a study led by the Frazer-Nash Consultancy.

By Oliver Gordon

Space-based solar power could help Europe reach net-zero emissions by diversifying the region’s energy generation mix, according to a recent cost-benefit study led by the UK-based Frazer-Nash Consultancy. 

Space-based solar is the concept of collecting solar energy in space, using very large satellites in geostationary Earth orbit. The electricity generated is converted to microwaves and beamed to a fixed point on Earth via wireless power transmission, where the electricity is regenerated by a large rectenna (an antenna used to convert microwaves into DC power). A single satellite could provide 1–2GW of power.

An illustration of a satellite harvesting energy from sunlight and beaming it down to Earth. (Image by MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via Getty Images)

The technology could provide continuous and dispatchable power that is not sensitive to terrestrial weather conditions, providing baseload energy as early as the mid-2030s, concludes the report. It was delivered in partnership with London Economics and commissioned by the European Space Agency. Developing space-based solar power would allow for the decommissioning of coal, oil and gas plants, the authors suggest. 

A Europe-wide space-based solar power programme could deliver more than €180bn ($180.89bn) in benefits and reduce reliance on fossil fuel imports too, states the research. A total of 54 solar satellites, each generating 1.4GW, would be needed to meet the projected demand for space-based solar power by 2050.

The development of the technology would require €15.8bn of research and development investment over four phases, resulting in a first gigawatt-scale prototype in orbit. Capital expenditure of €9.8bn would be required for the first fully-operational space-based solar power station, and €7.6bn for the tenth station, as economies of scale drive costs down. At a 5% hurdle rate (minimum acceptable rate of return), the levelised cost of energy of the first system would be €69/MWh, making it cost competitive with other renewable technologies, according to the study.

Space-based solar would also be a land-efficient generation technology, using only 5m2 of land per MWh – less than most other sources of renewable energy, state the authors. It offers the opportunity to co-locate ground infrastructure with other uses such as agriculture.

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