Spotlight on space solar as EU moves away from Russian gas

Russia’s murderous rampage through Ukraine has EU countries rushing into a race to cut energy ties with the rogue nation, and it looks like space solar power will be part of the plan. Among other developments, the US Air Force is preparing an update of its research on the subject, and earlier this month UK Science Minister George Freeman voiced his support for solar collection platforms in orbit that transmit solar energy to Earth anywhere, anytime.

As of this writing, Russia seems determined to murder as many people in Ukraine as possible. Millions of people are fleeing and need help. To help refugees from this conflict and others, contact the International Rescue Committee or other trusted aid organizations.

Many reasons for space solar energy

The idea of ​​space solar power seemed a bit far-fetched when it first cruised through the Clean Technica radar in 2013, but the following year, the US Naval Research Laboratory weighed in with this observation:

“What if you could capture solar energy in space and then send it to Earth? What if you could launch the hundreds of modules from such a satellite and then use robots to assemble the entire network in space? You could power a military installation, a city – even on a cloudy day, even at night,” the lab enthused.

If you got that continuous solar power thing, that’s part of the attraction. Another part is avoiding land use conflicts with nature conservation and food supply here on Earth, and another part is electrifying communities and operations without having to build new transmission lines or energy storage infrastructure.

Emergency response could also come into play, as orbiting solar collectors could continue to operate during storms and other disasters, and if you can think of other reasons, drop us a note in the comments thread.

US Air Force Hearts Space Solar Power

In 2015, the California Institute of Technology picked up the space solar power torch and ran with it, with $17.5 million in help from Northrup Grumman to establish something called the Space Solar Power Initiative. This was apparently superseded by the Space Solar Power Project, funded by an anonymous $100 million donation from an individual who turned out to be Donald Bren, president of the Irvine Company.

CalTech announced Bren’s contribution last year, providing an update on the project.

“Our research solves the fundamental challenges associated with implementing space solar energy by integrating ultra-lightweight and precisely shaped structures with high-efficiency photovoltaics and large-scale phased-array power transmission in a scalable spacecraft. and deployable in two dimensions,” CalTech observed.

As of last year, the project was on track to initiate a 6×6 foot prototype phase test for solar power generators and radio frequency wireless power transfer.

Meanwhile, the US Air Force is on the trail. In 2020, the Air Force Research Laboratory was partnering with Northrup Grumman on a project called SSPIDR, which is short for Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research.

Just a few months ago, in December 2021, the partners let slip that a key element of the project had passed its first tests. Called a “sandwich tile”, the specially designed photovoltaic cell is integrated with a layer of components for radio frequency conversion and beamforming at the end of operations.

Next steps for solar power from space

This brings us to last week when the Air Force Research Laboratory announced it would present a series of programs, including the Space Solar Energy Project, at its 37th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. , which will begin on April 4.

For those of you wondering what happened to the newly created Space Force and its Guardians group, the lab clarifies that “AFRL supports both the US Air Force and the US Space Force, working seamlessly in high-priority research areas throughout the lab, meeting operational needs and providing combat technologies to Airmen and Guardians.

The Deputy Director of Technology for Space Science and Technology, Dr. Andrew Williams, further pointed out that the Space Force Guardians are firmly under the lab’s wing.

“Our ability to operate freely in space can no longer be assumed, and the AFRL is tasked with providing advanced technology to the Guardians,” he said.

In this spirit, the AFRL stresses that the solar collectors in orbit fulfill its mission of developing mature technologies for the combatant.

“Making sure a forward operating base is powered up is one of the most dangerous parts of a ground operation. Convoys and supply lines, which are major targets for adversaries, are the usual methods of delivering power,” the lab explains.

“To use the solar radiation system, a service member would simply install a rectifier antenna to access electricity, eliminating costly and dangerous convoys. Essentially, the AFRL is enabling the relocation of these supply lines into space, which could save countless lives,” they add.

AFRL also points to similarities with GPS, which started life as a military asset and is now put to good use by civilians everywhere, every day.

UK Eyeballs Unlimited Solar Power From Space

No wonder the UK also wants some of that space solar power. Last autumn, the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published an independent report making the case for investment in space-based solar power. The report focused on space solar as an achievable part of the UK’s 2050 climate economy target, and also raised the issue of energy security.

“Global energy demand is expected to double over the next 30 years. At the same time, the climate risk of change additional pressure on land and resources, with all the consequences that may ensue. There is an urgent need to develop new sources of clean energy that is sustainable, affordable, secure and scalable,” the authors emphasized.

In widely reported remarks earlier this month, Britain’s Science Minister George Freeman affirmed his government’s support for space solar power R&D, although his remarks were apparently unrelated to any new research programs. funding.

In a strange coincidence, on September 10, Russia and Belarus launched a massive military “exercise” and the space solar energy report was released on September 27. It is reasonable to assume that the authors of the report knew nothing of the Russian president and claimed war criminal Vladimir Putin’s alleged plans to send his troops to invade Ukraine and expel its elected officials with the obvious aim of gaining access to the country’s vast land and energy resources through a friendly puppet government.

However, Putin has been sending many signals about the geopolitical consequences to Europe and other trading partners for years. If annexing Crimea was not enough, there were many atrocities in Georgia, Chechnya and Syria.

Finally the message got through, but it will take time for Europe to cut its energy ties with Russia. The EU is looking to liquid natural gas for significant help, at least in the near future.

Natural gas players in the United States and elsewhere are doing the happy dance at the moment, but the long-term outlook doesn’t look so bright. Near-term competition from wind, solar and green hydrogen players is already emerging, and a competitive space-based solar industry could help put the LNG genius back in the bottle, term.

follow me on twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: SSPIDR Space Solar Energy Radiation Project courtesy of the US Air Force Research Laboratory.


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