Boldly going where no country has gone before as UK space-based solar power industry prepares for lift-off

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The UK’s space-based solar power industry is preparing for lift off thanks to a multi-million government investment to develop the cutting-edge technology.

In a speech at London Tech Week today, Energy Security Secretary Grant Shapps will announce the leading UK universities and technology companies receiving a share of £4.3 million government funding to drive forward innovation in the sector.

Spaced-based solar power collects energy from the Sun using panels on satellites and beaming it safely back to earth with wireless technology.

The winning projects include Cambridge University, who will develop ultra-lightweight solar panels for the satellites that can function in the high-radiation conditions of space, and Queen Mary University in London, who are working on a wireless system to enable the solar power collected in space to be transferred to earth.

This technology – which is in the early stages of development – has huge potential to boost the UK’s energy security, reduce the need for fossil fuels and drive down household bills by providing solar power all year round, as the Sun is visible for over 99% of the time.

An independent study in 2021, found that space-based solar power could generate up to 10GW of electricity a year, a quarter of the UK’s power needs, by 2050. It could create a multi-billion pound industry, with 143,000 jobs across the country – supporting one of the Prime Minister’s priorities to grow the economy.

The UK is among several countries, including Japan and United States, committed to the development of space-based solar power. Earlier this month, scientists at the California Institute of Technology claimed to have achieved a world-first by successfully transmitting solar power to Earth from space.

Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero Grant Shapps said:

I want the UK to boldly go where no country has gone before – boosting our energy security by getting our power directly from space.

We’re taking a giant leap by backing the development of this exciting technology and putting the UK at the forefront of this rapidly emerging industry as it prepares for launch.

By winning this new space race, we can transform the way we power our nation and provide cheaper, cleaner and more secure energy for generations to come.

The 8 projects to be awarded funding from the government’s Space Based Solar Power Innovation Competition, part of the flagship £1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, are as follows:

  • the University of Cambridge is receiving over £770,000 to develop ultra-lightweight solar panels that can survive long periods in high-radiation environments like the conditions in space. This will help increase the lifetime of these satellites, improve energy yields and lower the cost per unit of energy
  • Queen Mary University in London will receive over £960,000 to develop a wireless power transmission system with high efficiency over a long range, to support the technology to beam solar power from the satellites back to Earth
  • MicroLink Devices UK Ltd in Port Talbot, South Wales, has been awarded over £449,000 to develop the next generation of lightweight, flexible solar panels, which could be used for solar satellites
  • the University of Bristol is receiving over £353,000 to produce a simulation of solar space wireless power transfer capability to explore the possibilities of this technology, and provide further evidence on the performance, safety, and reliability of space based solar
  • Satellite Applications Catapult Ltd in Didcot has been awarded over £999,000 for an experiment to test the electronical steering and beam quality of its space satellite antenna technology.  The company are receiving over £424,000 for another project to study how to advance commercial space-based solar power that can provide a reliable source of electricity for the UK
  • Imperial College London is receiving over £295,000 for a study to assess the key benefits and impacts of space solar, including how solar energy from space could be integrated into the electricity grid alongside other low-carbon energy sources
  • EDF Energy R&D UK Centre Ltd will receive over £25,000 for a study to improve knowledge of the value of introducing space based solar power into the UK’s grid

The UK is already a world-leader in renewable technologies, including the world’s 4 largest wind farms, and more than 99% of the country’s solar power capacity has been installed since 2010 – enough to power over 4 million homes.

Building on this momentum, the government aims to make space solar a new clean energy industry for the UK, investing in its early-stage development with the £4.3 million funding announced today, including £3.3 million from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and £1 million from the UK Space Agency.

This new industry builds on historical links between space technology and the development of solar power as a clean energy source. It is bringing together the UK’s space and energy industries, with the nation’s leading researchers and entrepreneurs in these sectors joining forces to realise the transformative potential of space-based solar power.

Dr Mamatha Maheshwarappa, Payload Systems Lead at the UK Space Agency, said:

Space technology and solar energy have a long history – the need to power satellites was a key driver in increasing the efficiency of solar panels which generate electricity for homes and businesses today.

There is significant potential for the space and energy sectors to work together to support the development of space-based solar power, and the UK Space Agency has contributed £1 million to these innovative projects to help take this revolutionary concept to the next level.

Professor Xiadong Chen of the Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) Antennas & Electromagnetics Research Laboratory said:

QMUL has been world- leading in the application of radio technology for industrial applications since the laboratory was set up in 1968.

This NZIP grant gives us the opportunity to extend our work to explore how the latest microwave technology can be used to develop cost-effective solutions to deliver net-zero using the abundant solar energy resources found in outer space.

We look forward to working with the UK space industry and others to develop solutions that ultimately will be of great benefit to mankind.

Frank Schoofs, technical lead for the Satellite Applications Catapult’s projects, said:

We are thrilled to build on the success of our SBSP Enablers project with 2 projects to advance the CASSIOPeiA architecture with our partners in the supply chain.

These transformative projects within the SBSP Innovation portfolio will play a pivotal role in driving the realisation of SBSP forward, propelling the UK towards the achievement of our ambitious net zero goals.

We are incredibly excited about the opportunities that lie ahead and the positive impact SBSP will have on our sustainable energy landscape.

Professor Goran Strbac, Imperial College London, said:

The core objective of our work is to assess the role and value of the SBSPtechnologies in supporting cost effective transition to secure zero-carbon energy future in the UK.

The NZIP funding is enabling us to enhance our analytical modelling tools to analyse quantitatively:
(a) the whole-system benefits of the emerging SBSP technology designs
(b) benefits of the ability to transport SBSP energy to different locations in different times
(c) cost and benefits of SBSP in the operation of future low-inertia power system and 
(d) the impact of the grid reliability on the security of the energy supplied by SBSP.

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