It might sound like newfangled science-fiction tech, but China has plans to build the world’s first space-based solar power station by 2050, according to an article in Forbes. The solar power station, owned by the state’s China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., may provide enough clean energy to power an entire city.
While China is a latecomer to the space age, the country has already accomplished historic feats, including landing a rover on the far side of the moon earlier this year. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. also plans to launch small solar satellites that can harness energy by 2021.
If energy can be beamed to Earth from space using microwaves or lasers and then converted to electricity and distributed via electric grids, this would open a new era of renewable energy for the world. The station might be able to collect solar power 24/7 without dealing with adverse atmosphere or weather.
The space-based solar power station would be placed in geostationary orbit, more than 22,360 miles above Earth. The station would need to be large, at least 0.8 square miles to produce 1 gigawatt of power, according to an article in CNN. China plans to build a receiving station in Xian.
China has pledged to invest $367 billion in renewable power generation by 2020, including solar, wind, hydro and nuclear energy. It made an initial investment of $15 million to build a 33-acre testing facility in Chongqing's Bishan district. The facility will develop space transmission technologies and study the effect microwaves beamed to Earth may have on living organisms.
To examine the feasibility of a space solar power station, scientists plan to use balloons equipped with solar panels to test microwave transmission technology. So far, Chinese researchers have transmitted energy-carrying microwaves over 328 feet.
“We plan to launch four to six tethered balloons from the testing base and connect them with each other to set up a network at an altitude of around 1,000 meters," said Xie Gengxin, deputy head of the Chongqing Collaborative Innovation Research Institute for Civil-Military Integration in Southwestern China in a China Daily article. "These balloons will collect sunlight and convert solar energy to microwave before beaming it back to Earth. Receiving stations on the ground will convert such microwaves to electricity and distribute it to a grid.”
China is not alone in exploring the possibilities of space-based energy. The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) also has been working for years on an orbital array of photovoltaic dishes. With the Space Solar Power Systems, JAXA plans to transmit energy from orbiting solar panels by 2030. JAXA is currently developing technology to transmit electricity wirelessly, and in 2015, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. successfully conducted a ground demonstration test of this technology.