What Are The Disadvantages Of Space Based Solar Power?

High Costs

Launching equipment into space is extremely expensive, with costs estimated between $100-$200 per kilogram of payload. This makes getting the necessary materials for space-based solar into orbit a massive financial challenge. Additionally, maintaining satellites and space infrastructure requires significant ongoing funding. The satellites, solar arrays, and transmission relays would need regular monitoring and maintenance. With so much infrastructure in space, costs could quickly balloon. Finally, the return on investment for space-based solar is unclear. Despite the potential for Limitless clean energy, the staggering upfront development and deployment costs make the economic viability uncertain.

Technical Complexity

Building and deploying technology in space is complex and requires advances in several areas including robotics, automation, and materials.

Constructing solar power satellites would involve launching thousands of components into space and assembling them in orbit. This is beyond what has been achieved before and presents major technical challenges.

Robots and automated systems would be needed to assemble and maintain the solar power satellites without human involvement. However, the required robotics do not currently exist and would take time to develop.

New materials capable of withstanding the space environment for decades are needed. The solar panels and transmitters must be durable enough to operate reliably over long periods in the harsh conditions of space.

space infrastructure must withstand harsh space conditions for decades.

According to a recent ESA report, developing the necessary technology is a key obstacle for space-based solar power. Significant advances are needed to make it technically and economically viable.

Energy Transmission Challenges

One of the main difficulties with space-based solar power is beaming the energy down to Earth. While prototypes have demonstrated wireless power transmission over short distances, transmitting energy over tens of thousands of miles will result in major losses.[1]

The two main methods for wireless transmission from space are using lasers or microwaves. However, both face challenges transmitting through Earth’s atmosphere without disruption. The atmosphere can interfere with and absorb part of the transmitted energy through scattering, absorption, and turbulence effects.[2]

Lasers are very focused but can be diffused and scattered by clouds, dust, moisture and other particles in the air. Microwaves are less prone to scattering but require transmitting antennas kilometers wide to correctly aim the beam. Maintaining a consistent beam will be difficult with any atmospheric disturbances.[3]

Until transmission challenges are solved, achieving reasonable efficiencies for delivering space-based solar power to Earth will remain elusive. More research is needed into how to transmit gigawatts of energy through the atmosphere with minimal losses.

Space Debris

As more satellites and equipment are launched into orbit, space junk has been increasing exponentially. There are currently over 9,000 tons of human-made debris orbiting the Earth https://www.space.com/kessler-syndrome-space-debris. Any collision with debris has the risk of damaging or destroying spacecraft. Even small particles traveling at high velocities can cause major damage. This danger was illustrated in 2016 when a 0.3 mm paint fleck created a 7mm dent in the ISS solar array https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/analysis-why-trash-in-space-is-a-major-problem-with-no-clear-fix.

NASA tracks over 20,000 pieces of debris, but much smaller untrackable pieces number in the millions. As more countries and companies launch satellites, risks increase. A phenomenon called Kessler Syndrome describes the potential for collisions creating more debris that then causes a cascading cycle. Any space station like the ISS would have difficulty remaining safely in orbit. While some efforts are being made to remove debris, this remains a complex challenge.

Political Viability

One key challenge for space-based solar power is achieving the international cooperation and political consensus needed to successfully develop and operate satellites in space (Space-Based Solar Power, 2022). As of now, there is no unified global framework for regulating activity in space, which poses hurdles for large-scale projects spanning multiple nations. There are also potential geopolitical disputes over usage rights and positioning of solar satellites. Without clear international laws and cooperation, it will be difficult to establish equitable access to space solar power across different countries (NASA report offers pessimistic take on space-based solar power, 2021).

Overall, the current lack of political alignment across nations is a major barrier for space-based solar power. Unless a framework is developed to govern space activity and ensure global participation, it will be hard to achieve the level of coordination needed to move projects forward. Overcoming geopolitical disagreements over access and usage of space will be critical for the viability of space solar power in the long run.

Environmental Impact

Space-based solar power has some concerning environmental impacts that need to be considered.[1] Space launches require a tremendous amount of fossil fuel energy. The frequent rocket launches needed for construction and maintenance of an SSPS facility would generate substantial carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. There are also risks from radiation. The wireless power transmission required for beaming solar energy from orbit to Earth has the potential to affect the ionsophere and expose humans and wildlife to low levels of radiation.[2] More research is needed to fully characterize the environmental risks posed by space-based solar power.

Alternatives on Earth

Rooftop solar panels and large-scale solar farms on Earth may currently provide a more cost-effective source of renewable energy compared to space-based solar power. According to a recent NYT article, rooftop solar costs about $1 per watt while utility-scale solar farms can cost as low as $0.50 per watt (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/20/climate/space-solar-power-energy.html). Though launch costs are dropping, sending materials and infrastructure into space is still enormously expensive. Constructing and maintaining solar installations on Earth avoids these added complexities and expenses.

Other renewable energy sources like wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and nuclear fission may also provide more feasible alternatives in the near term. These technologies are relatively mature and have clear cost advantages over the unprecedented scale and complexity of space-based solar power. While solar power from space has enormous long-term potential, existing renewable energy options on Earth can already meet many of our decarbonization goals in the coming decades. With further development and scaling, these alternatives may buy time for space-based solar to become truly viable and economical in the more distant future.

Development Timeline

Space-based solar power is a large-scale engineering project that faces significant technical hurdles. Developing and deploying SBSP infrastructure at a meaningful scale could take several decades (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space-based_solar_power). With the urgent need to tackle climate change in the near future, SBSP cannot provide an immediate solution compared to renewable energy projects on Earth. According to the ESA, the first operational SBSP satellites are unlikely to be deployed before 2040 (https://www.esa.int/Enabling_Support/Space_Engineering_Technology/SOLARIS/SBSP_history). While research and development should continue, SBSP realistically cannot contribute meaningfully to climate change mitigation within the next 10-20 years when emissions reductions are critically needed.

Maintenance and Repairs

Space based solar power systems will require regular maintenance and repairs. However, these will be difficult and extremely expensive to perform in space.

Satellites and space infrastructure operating in orbit do not have easy access for repairs crews. According to Astronomy.com, performing repairs on satellites in space is very complex. Spacecraft and infrastructure would need to be designed to allow for repairs by astronauts or robots. Special tools and facilities may be required. This adds engineering challenges and significant costs.

Satellites also cannot be refueled, limiting their lifetimes. Aerotime reports that satellites rely on small amounts of fuel to maintain precise orbits. Once this runs out, their orbits decay and they burn up in the atmosphere. Space solar systems may require large amounts of fuel for station keeping and adjustments. This would further limit satellite lifetimes.

The difficulty and expense of maintenance and repairs in the hazardous space environment is a significant drawback for space based solar power systems. Their infrastructure would be extremely costly to install, repair, and replace on a regular basis.

Public Perception

Many members of the public view space-based solar power as unrealistic science fiction fantasy that will never come to fruition. Despite long-standing proposals and concepts, space-based solar has yet to move beyond the theory stage into tangible real-world implementation. This leads to skepticism among the public about the true feasibility and viability of space-based solar power systems. According to a 2022 NASA report, “public perceptions of the feasibility of SBSP systems present a significant barrier to development” (source). Without visible real-world prototypes and successful demonstrations, space-based solar is often dismissed by the public as unrealistic. There are also doubts about whether the purported benefits of space-based solar truly outweigh the enormous financial, technological, and logistical challenges involved. Winning over public perception will require substantial investment and progress in developing real space-based solar infrastructure before the public views it as a source of practical renewable energy rather than far-fetched science fiction fantasy.

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