Just five years ago, the idea of harvesting solar energy in outer space and beaming it down to generate electricity on Earth seemed pretty far-fetched. Well, the fetching has come closer over the past couple of years, and a new breakthrough from the Army Research Lab indicates that the US is only a few years away from making space solar power happen.
The Long Road To Space Solar
If you’re wondering why go through all the trouble of beaming solar energy down from space when you could harvest it here on Earth with the latest generation of low cost solar cells, that’s a good question.
Fans of space solar power have been trying to answer that question since at least 2010, when the US-based National Space Society teamed up with researchers in India to take on the challenge.
In 2014, the US Naval Research Laboratory chipped in with this observation:
“What if you could capture solar power in space, then send it down to Earth? What if you could launch the hundreds of modules for such a satellite, then use robots to assemble the entire array in space? You could power a military installation, a city—even on a cloudy day, even at night.”
Navy researchers were already far along with their space solar power project by then, and in 2015 Northrup Grumman jumped into the field to establish something called the Space Solar Power Initiative at the California Institute of Technology.
CleanTechnica caught wind of the project and noted an additional benefit of space solar power. Locating very large arrays of solar energy collectors in space would help decarbonize the global economy while preserving terrestrial real estate for other activities such as agriculture, cultural activities, recreation, and nature preservation.
Another benefit of space solar power is the potential for lowering costs, increasing security, improving resilience, and getting more clean kilowatts into nation’s power profile more quickly, compared to building major new transmission lines.
Texas provides a good demonstration of just how fast the approval of new transmission lines can accelerate clean energy development. In contrast, the tangled tale of the Grain Belt Express transmission project in the Midwest illustrates how state-level opposition can add years to a timeline. That particular project got on the drawing board in 2011 and it is still bogged down in lawsuits.
A Big Step For Space Solar Power
Where were we? Oh right, space solar power. Right around this time last year we noted that the US Air Force Research Laboratory has also been active in the area, through its “Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research” solar beaming project, aka SSPIDR. The project is a collaboration with Northrup Grumman, which won a $100 million contract for the project from AFRL in 2018 (if you know what happened to the Navy’s role in all this, drop us a note in the comment thread).</…….