How to realize Energy from Space?
The success of Energy from Space depends on several factors. Large technological steps have been made and launch costs are decreasing. Wireless power transmission on Earth has been proven and the efficiency of solar panels continue to improve.
Debates on fossil fuels, an increased desire for energy security and increased worries over climate change will stimulate the developments of Energy from Space.
From a technological point of view, developments of the following elements are most critical:
- Wireless power transmission equipment
- Super light-weight and efficient solar power systems
- Efficient reusable launch vehicles
- In-orbit assembly of components
Wireless power transmission has already been tested and is currently increasingly applied for charging electric vehicles, mobile phones and household appliances. Through collaborative research and development between space agencies, universities and electronics manufacturers, we expect the end-to-end wireless power transmission efficiency to improve from 40% now to 80% in 2030.
The solar power systems use either solar photovoltaic (PV) panels or concentrated PV (CPV) using mirrors. Maximum efficiency of PV now is around 25% and we expect 35% in 2030, maximum efficiency of CPV now is around 40% and we expect 50% in 2030.
In space, the entire Energy from Space system requires an area of roughly 3 km x 2 km. This will weigh more than 2,000 metric tons (equivalent to 2,000 small cars). With reusable heavy launch vehicles, as illustrated by the adjacent figure, it takes about 80 to 250 launches (depending on the type). The components can be brought in Low Earth Orbit (600 km altitude) and subsequently accelerated to geostationary orbit (36,000 km altitude). In-orbit assembly is expected to be done autonomously in a modular way.
Economics & Commercial
The expected costs of one typical Energy from Space system are $20 billion, split approximately evenly between hardware and deployment (i.e. launches). With each system producing 1 GW and having a lifetime of more than 30 years, the electricity costs are expected to be between $0.10 and $0.50 per kWh. For comparison, average electricity generation costs are $0.10/kWh in the United States and more than $0.50/kWh on remote islands in Indonesia. The investment costs are high relative to existing power plants like coal, gas, and nuclear plants. However, Energy from Space is independent from fuel prices and supply, and consequently have relative low operational costs.
The most important aspect in order to make Energy from Space viable is a significant decrease in launch costs. Currently, it roughly costs $20,000 to bring one kg payload in geostationary orbit. This has to go down to less than $1,000. There are already promising developments in this fields, like the successful flight to the International Space Station of the reusable Dragon module by SpaceX, an American private space transportation company. Also initiatives like Virgin Galaxy and Space Expedition Curacao will make the difference.
The most likely first customers of large-scale Energy from Space systems are countries desiring more energy independence and defense agencies to power remote places. Through international collaboration between space agencies, private sectors, universities and governments, the first systems will be realized.
Organisational & Political
A couple of important policy considerations are essential to the success of Energy from Space systems, such as regulations on beam frequency management and space debris. With the current extremely intensive usage of radio waves for communications, it is of vital important that interference is minimized and safety is guaranteed without compromise. In addition, current space debris poses a serious issue for operating and new satellites. Making agreements on minimizing risks and taking responsibility for the decommissioning of Energy from Space systems is necessary for future success.
Organisations like the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) play an important role regarding legislation, safety, and planning.
Last, but certainly not least, Energy from Space requires dedicated, enthusiastic and ambitious engineers, economists and entrepreneurs.