China will build a space station that will serve as a power plant to capture large amounts of sunlight and meet Earth’s energy needs. The orbital project proposes to take advantage of the Sun as a renewable and clean energy source, operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For this, a technology capable of receiving and sending a beam of light from space to convert into electricity was developed.
The experimental installation began in 2018, with preliminary constructions in the village of Heping, Bishan district, located in the southwest of the country. However, at the time, the estimated 100 million yuan ($15.4 million) national solar energy program was halted because of the high cost, feasibility and safety of the technology.
The resumption took place in June 2021, with the government’s goal of becoming neutral in carbon matrices by 2060 — a goal that had the support of the sector. The program is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Researchers have already conducted tests on a balloon at an altitude of 300 meters. When the infrastructure is ready, the expectation is to receive the energy collected from more than 20 km from the surface through an airship in the stratosphere that will serve as a dual-use site for researchers and military personnel.
The government hopes to provide 1 megawatt of electricity by 2030 and gradually increase its capacity. The ultimate goal is to reach 1 gigawatt — equivalent to today’s largest nuclear reactor — by 2049, the year of celebration of the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
Earlier this month, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) announced funding for a similar program, called the Space-Based Solar Energy Project (SSPP) and scheduled for 2023. Such endeavors could signal a new phase in the space race, with nations in the search for the dominance of alternative energy sources — sustainable and clean — in the face of the debate around the environmental issue.
The global effort behind this technology is also aimed at presenting an alternative to terrestrial solar power plants, whose efficiency depends on daytime operations only. In addition, another problem is that the atmosphere reflects or absorbs almost half the energy of sunlight.
To achieve the expected success, the energy beam emitted from the space structure will need to reach the ground station more efficiently and precisely. This functionality will occur through the firing of concentrated and focused energy in the form of high frequency microwaves.
One of the challenges will be to improve control systems to maintain the aim of the solar panels, which can suffer small vibrations. On Earth, the plant will have an area of 2 hectares (2,000 square meters), surrounded by a zone 5 times larger where local residents will not be allowed to enter for security reasons, as the installation risks cannot be ignored.
Among these dangers is radiation; studies have revealed that people could not live within 5 km of the earth station when it is at its maximum energy capacity. Other potential problems would be communication failures in transports, as the beam based on microwave frequency would affect Wi-Fi signals.
In addition to its main function, the technology can be applied in other areas, such as feeding drones and remote military posts. However, critics of the project point out that the novelty can be transferred to military activities, with the energy beam aimed to track and shoot down potential moving threats — hypersonic missiles or aircraft — or even to cause a communication blackout in an entire city.