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UK and Saudi eye investments in space-based solar power

Solar panels power the International Space Station. Governments and space agencies are now studying the feasibility of providing Earth with clean energy from space Reuters/Nasa
Solar panels power the International Space Station. Governments and space agencies are now studying the feasibility of providing Earth with clean energy from space
  • Solar power stations in space may be the next frontier in renewables
  • UK business secretary in talks with Saudi over possible tie-up
  • Cost of space launches has fallen sharply

The UK and Saudi governments are exploring closer collaboration to invest in what could be the next era of renewable energy: space-based solar power.

Grant Shapps, Britain’s business and energy secretary, met Abdullah Al Swaha, chairman of the Saudi Space Commission and minister of communications and information technology, for talks last week.

A potential collaboration between UK company Space Solar and Neom, the high-tech city being built in Saudi’s Tabuk province, could lead both countries to make significant investments in the development of space-based solar power, Shapps said.

The idea is to collect solar energy using panels on a very large satellite in geo-stationary orbit and then to beam the energy to a fixed point on Earth via radio technology. 

The main advantage of space-based solar power (SBSP) over wind and terrestrial solar is its potential ability to deliver clean energy, day and night, throughout the year and in all weather conditions. Interest in the technology has grown in recent years as the costs of space launches fall dramatically.

A 2021 feasibility study for the UK’s business department, compiled by Frazer-Nash Consultancy, estimated that an SBSP development programme would cost around £17.3 billion ($21.1 billion) up to 2040, including operating costs for a first-of-its-kind system in orbit. 

According to the European Space Agency, SBSP is based on existing technological principles and known physics, with no new breakthroughs required. 

The biggest challenge is that in order to generate optimal, economically viable levels of solar power, the required structures need to be very large, both on Earth and in space.

Shapps said last week that Riyadh’s economic strategy presented “a host of opportunities for burgeoning British businesses, exporting UK expertise that could transform global access to renewable energy, including space-based solar power. Collaboration on a global scale is an essential part of realising the UK’s ambitions in science and innovation.” 

Saudi Arabia has recently stepped up its ambitions in space and last month its Space Commission announced an accelerator programme to drive the development of infrastructure and support local entrepreneurs and businesses.

Partnering with early-stage investor Techstars, the commission will unveil its first cohort of local and international entrepreneurs this month.

Alex Cresniov, director of consultancy Deep Knowledge Analytics, said there was huge potential for Saudi Arabia in the spacetech sector.

“The national space strategy is progressing quickly, and I anticipate large-scale projects in the near future,” he said. “The programme has the potential to turn the country into a regional hub for commercial space activities as well as a sophisticated research and development centre.

“We are used to seeing great space missions led by the US, China, the EU and Russia. The UAE Mars mission clearly shows that other parts of the world are capable and space-ready, too.”

Last September, Riyadh announced that it plans to send the first Saudi woman into space this year.

In December, British outsourcing firm Serco said it was mulling setting up its space division in Saudi Arabia this year. 

The UK and Saudi Arabia have a long-standing bilateral relationship based on trade, investment, defence, security and energy.

Latest figures from the Department for International Trade show that total trade in goods and services between the UK and Saudi Arabia was £13.7 billion in the year to the end of June, an increase of 25.9 percent on the previous 12 months. 

UK exports to Saudi Arabia made up £10.4 billion of the total. Saudi Arabia was the UK’s 25th largest trading partner during the period.

It came from outer space

In a 1941 short story called Reason, Isaac Asimov imagined a space station transmitting energy collected from the sun to various planets using microwave beams. As was often the case with the prolific science-fiction author and professor of biochemistry, Asimov was on to something.

The concept of space-based solar power has been researched since the 1970s. In 1973, scientist Peter Glaser was granted a US patent for his method of transmitting power over long distances using microwaves.

Between 1978 and 1986, the US Congress authorised the Department of Energy and Nasa to investigate the idea. They set up the Satellite Power System Concept Development and Evaluation Programme. 

The cost of space launches has always been the sticking point but, as the Frazer-Nash study for the British government suggests, this may be changing. Today the feasibility of space-based solar power is being investigated by Japan, China, Russia, India, the European Union, the US and the UK.