As great as ground-based solar panels are, occasional cloud cover means the system often fails to operate at total efficiency. Moreover, areas that receive heavy rainfall throughout the year cannot rely on solar-generated electricity.
To get around this, a team of Chinese scientists and engineers have been working on the way to build a solar power plant in space which will be capable of beaming the stored energy to Earth. The team behind the project claims that if things work out, such a facility could generate about six times as much energy as if it was located on the ground.
While China has been aiming to launch its first solar power transmission technology in 2030, those involved in the project said that technological advancements meant they would now be able to begin testing its gear in space in 2028.
The idea is to convert solar energy into microwaves or lasers before being targeted at stations based on the Earth, which will then convert it to power for the grid. The space-based stations will orbit at an altitude of about 250 miles or 400 kilometres above Earth.
While the test facility will only generate about 10 kilowatts of power if it works effectively initially, it will be scaled up exponentially in the future.
The team working on these satellites is under no illusion as to the challenges they will be facing if they succeed in their endeavour to beam high-power microwaves over vast distances.
These challenges include effectively cooling various essential components, assembling extensive infrastructure in orbit with multiple launches, penetrating the atmosphere in all weather with high-frequency beams, and preventing damage from asteroids, space debris, or a deliberate attack.
China aims to build a full-scale space-based power plant in four stages, with the necessary components transported to space in a series of rocket launches.
Following the first launch in six years, engineers want to send a more powerful version of the technology into orbit in 2030 to reach its goal of launching a 10-megawatt power plant capable of beaming power to military and civilian users by 2035.
If all goes to plan, the station could ramp up power production to 2 gigawatts by 2050, about twice that of a nuclear power plant.
China has been actively pursuing the idea of space-based solar power plants for the last few years, while other countries, including the U.S., Japan, the U.K., Russia, and India, are also exploring the idea.
The report notes that NASA said just last month that it is exploring similar plans with the U.S. Air Force. At the same time, the British government revealed earlier this year that it is looking at a $20 billion proposal with several European defence contractors that would lot solar power plants in space by 2035.