ESA to seek funding for space study on solar energy

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WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency will seek funding this fall for a space solar power feasibility study, the latest sign of support for a concept that still faces significant technical and financial challenges.

Josef Aschbacher, Director General of ESA, tweeted on August 16 that he will ask Member States at the November Ministerial meeting to fund a Space Solar Power Preparatory Program (SBSP) called Solaris. He did not disclose the amount of funding he was requesting for Solaris.

“We already have the main building blocks, but let me be clear: for the project to succeed, a lot of technology development and funding is still needed,” he wrote.

Solaris, according to ESA, would be a three-year study to solve the technical problems associated with SBSP, a concept where solar energy is converted into electricity and then transmitted to Earth for terrestrial use. The study would examine potential business opportunities for the development of SBSP and address policy issues.

“This would ensure that Europe becomes a key player – and potentially a leader – in the international race for clean and scalable energy solutions to mitigate climate change,” ESA says on a webpage dedicated to Solaris. The three-year study would support a decision at the next ministerial meeting in 2025 on pursuing a full-fledged SBSP development effort.

ESA is seeking funding for Solaris after two independent cost-benefit studies by consultancy firms Frazer-Nash in the UK and Roland Berger in Germany. The two concluded that the SBSP has the potential to meet European energy needs while supporting the European Commission’s 2050 net-zero emissions target.

The Frazer-Nash study estimated that the net present value of a European SBSP system from 2022 to 2070 would be between 149 and 262 billion euros ($150–264 billion). A central case of 54 “gigawatt-class” SBSP satellites would produce 601 billion euros in benefits over this period, mainly due to the avoided costs of terrestrial energy production as well as its carbon dioxide emissions, with 418 billion euros in costs to develop and operate the SBSP system.

The Roland Berger study concluded that a single SBSP satellite, based on an existing design, could cost as little as €8.1 billion to build and €7.5 billion to operate for 30 years, assuming “substantial advances” in key technologies. In the worst case without these advances, the same design would cost €33.4 billion to build and €31.1 billion to operate. Despite the uncertainty, he concluded that SBSP “has strong potential to become a competitive renewable technology.”

The ESA initiative comes amid a resurgence of global interest in SBSP, which peaked half a century ago and has periodically resurfaced since then. The UK government has shown interest in SBSP, including it among other alternative energy technologies it was considering last year.

The Chinese Academy of Space Technology announced in June that it would test wireless power transmission, a key technology for SBSP, in low Earth orbit in 2028, followed by an experimental megawatt-class satellite in geostationary orbit as early as 2030. These tests are part of a long-term effort that could lead to satellites producing two gigawatts of GEO power by 2050.

NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy announced at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in May that it was undertaking a near-term study of the SBSP, updating existing concepts. to reflect advances in technology and reductions in launch costs. The agency expects the study to be completed in time for presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris in September.

SBSP supporters said the potential for deep launch cost reductions enabled by systems such as SpaceX’s Starship, as well as the growing demand for clean energy sources to meet net zero goals, are fueling the resurgence of energy. interest of governments in the SBSP. However, even these advocates recognize that the SBSP faces major hurdles, ranging from the economics of these systems to the development of key technologies needed to assemble and operate massive satellites, as well as the political implications associated with power transmission. from space.

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