Scientists Test Solar Panel that Beams Power to Earth from Space

Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory via CNN

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Pentagon scientists have successfully tested a small solar panel that, when launched into space, can collect solar power and beam it to any place on earth. The special panel is called a Photovoltaic Radiofrequency Antenna Module (PRAM) and was launched last May attached to a drone that circles the earth once every 90 minutes. If scaled up, scientists say that these orbital solar panels would work 24/7 and could collect more sunlight than those on earth, and provide power to remote areas of the globe and major power grids alike.

Why This Matters: Along with hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and other natural disasters, climate change will also be increasing power outages. Between 2000 and 2016, more than 50% of all power outages in the U.S. were caused by weather events. To prevent catastrophic power loss, like the one seen in Texas this month, experts say states and countries must upgrade and retrofit their power grids to withstand extreme weather. This new technology could play a role in reducing power outages and creating a globally connected power grid. “The unique advantage the solar power satellites have over any other source of power is this global transmissibility,” said Paul Jaffe, a co-developer of the project. “You can send power to Chicago and a fraction of a second later, if you needed, send it instead to London or Brasilia.”

Leaps and Bounds

This technology circumvents a lot of the primary challenges facing solar power down here on Earth. Surface solar panels are limited by day-night cycles, and can only collect energy for about 12 hours per day, but panels in space would orbit the earth facing the sun, and collect sunlight at all times. Panels on the ground also don’t receive as much sunlight due to blue light scattering in the atmosphere (hence why the sky appears blue) but space panels would collect the full intensity of the sun’s rays. They also wouldn’t be impaired by weather like rain, snow, or dust storms.

However, these panels would have to be produced and launched in large numbers to be an efficient source of power. One pizza box-sized panel produces about enough energy to run a tablet computer, which is impressive if you want to charge your iPad, but not so impressive if you’re looking to restore power to an entire state. But Jaffe says that scaling up can pay off, “Some visions have space solar matching or exceeding the largest power plants today — multiple gigawatts — so enough for a city.” Another disadvantage is getting the panels up there. “Building hardware for space is expensive,” said Jaffe. Although costs are dropping, investing in outer-space infrastructure can be a tall order. However, Jaffe says it’s easier to build massive projects like this one when they don’t rely on gravity for support.

Jaffe also allayed any fears that this technology could one day be used as a space laser. “It would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible,” he said.

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