Solar power is great, right? Those panels covering sunny rooftops all around the world look pretty cool, anyway, and creating green energy is all the rage. China is trying to take solar power creation to the next level: by 2025, they want to put a floating clump of solar panels in space. How can they do it? Is this just a move to corner the market on space solar power? And, most importantly, will it work?
What’s the plan?
For a long time,scientists have theorized that the most effective solar power will come from space. The closer you can get your solar panels to the sun, the better, right? China is certainly going to test the theory. They want to build a power station that will continually orbit the earth at 36,000 kilometers away.
The Chinese plan will start relatively small. They’re going to launch small power stations into space beginning in 2021, get a megawatt station going in 2030, and then ultimately send a gigawatt facility into space by 2050. Claims from the China Academy of Space Technology Corporation cite massive energy production possibilities from these power stations: the goal is that they would eventually supply clean energy 99% of the time and produce six times as much energy as current solar power setups on Earth today.
Getting the power stations into space is only the first part, though. This system will also involve conversion of the solar energy into electricity (which will be done in space), and then transmitting the power down to the planet. They plan to create a receiving system on the ground that connects to a grid which will accept microwave or laser-beamed electricity and put it to use ASAP. Successful creation and implementation of this solar space farm could be a major step forward in the fight for developing clean and renewable energy. If it works, the energy produced through these power stations could significantly reduce China’s reliance on fossil fuels, which currently supply over 90% of the large country’s energy needs.
This isn’t China’s only endeavor to combat climate change. Since the 1990s, China has been planting trees in massive numbers to deal with climate change, erosion, and air pollution. Their plans for an incredible solar space farm is only one more step in their efforts to be greener, cleaner, and healthier. The building has started (in Chongqing) and researchers are racing to solve any lingering problems that are still facing this huge project.
Is it even possible?
Harvesting solar energy from space and beaming it back down to Earth is not a new idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready to go just yet. Overall, the idea is pretty sound: scientists around the world have even already created prototype panels and machines that can collect, convert, and transmit the energy, so the overall concept can work. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t obstacles to the solar farm’s actual creation. There are inevitably some issues with this massively big undertaking. The first is just the literal size of the project and projected stations themselves: weighing in at over 1,000 tons, it’s going to be difficult to get these things to orbit anything.
Over the course of space exploration, only three vehicles over 100 tons have ever made it into space (the Saturn V Rocket and the Space Shuttle from the US and the Soviet Energia rocket), so this is not a minor issue. Right now, researchers are trying to figure out if it would be possible to have robots 3D print the stations in space, which might eliminate some of the transportation problem. The other issue space solar scientists need to overcome is the safety of the beams that would transmit the energy from space back down to where people can use it. The impact of laser beams and microwave beams on sent down to the Earth’s surface hasn’t been studied enough for scientists to make definitive claims about the safety of such transmission methods.
Who else is going to jump into this game?
If this works (and scientists say probably it can), China isn’t going to hold the only key to the future. Japan has actually been brainstorming possible suggestions and solutions to the energy-transmission-from-space issue for years, and they’ve even demonstrated some options. In 2015, they developed a wireless method of energy transmission which might have some traction.
The United States is doing its best not to be left behind by this current space race. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (through the Space Solar Power Project) have created a method to collect energy in space and then transmit it down to Earth using thin tiles. These Caltech prototypes collect sunlight, convert it into electricity, and then transmit it down to Earth through steerable beams. Because the price of solar panels has been steadily dropping, the financial element of this process is no longer necessarily prohibitive. Teams in Europe, Japan, India, and in the US are all currently working on their own solar energy harvesting ideas.
The future of space and energy is almost here. Within the next decade, a handful of countries across the world may be relying on the sun’s energy (via enormous floating solar panel machines) to live, work, and play. Keep watching the news and the skies: someday very soon, you might be able to look up, wave, and thank an invisible orbiting mass for your lamplight, your heat, or your jetpack.