Posts Tagged ‘Hinkley C’

‘I’: British Government Considering Solar Power Satellites

November 17, 2020

A bit more space technology news now. The weekend edition of the I, for Saturday 14th November 2020 carried a piece by Tom Bawden, ‘The final frontier for energy’ with the subtitle ‘Revealed: the UK is supporting a plan to create a giant solar power station in space’. The article ran

Millions of British homes could be powered by a giant solar power station 24,000 miles up in space within three decades, under proposals being considered by the government.

Under the plan, a system of five huge satellites – each more than a mile wide, covered in solar panels and weighing several thousand tons – would deliver laser beams of energy down to Earth.

These would provide up to 15 per cent of the country’s electricity supply by 2050, enough to power four million households – with the first space energy expected to be delivered by 2040. Each satellite would be made from tens of thousands of small modules, propelled into space through 200 separate rocket launches, and then assembled by robots.

The satellites would use thousands of mirrors to concentrate the sunlight on to the solar panels, which would be converted into high frequency radio waves. These would be beamed to a receiving antenna on the Earth, converted into electricity and delivered to our homes.

While the prospect of a solar space station beaming energy into our homes might seem outlandish, advocates are hopeful it can be done. The Government and the UK Space Agency are taking the technology extremely seriously, believing it could play a crucial role in helping the country to fulfil its promise of becoming carbon neutral – or net zero – by 2050, while keeping the lights on.

They have appointed the engineering consultancy Frazer-Nash to look into the technical and economic feasibility and it will report back next year.

“Solar space stations may sound like science fiction, but they could be a game-changing new source of energy for the UK and the rest of the world,” the science minister, Amanda Solloway, said.

“This pioneering study will help shine a light on the possibilities for a space-based solar power system which, if successful, could play an important role in reducing our emissions and meeting the UK’s ambitious climate-change targets,” she said.

Martin Soltau, of Frazer-Nash, who is leading the feasibility study, said: “This technology is really exciting and could be a real force for good. It has the potential to transform the energy market and make the net-zero target achievable – and from an engineering perspective it looks feasible.”

Previous analysis by other researchers on economic viability suggests space solar could be “competitive” with existing methods of electricity generation but that will need to be independently assessed, Mr Soltau said.

If the UK is to become net zero it needs to find a green source of energy that is totally dependable because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun definitely doesn’t always shine.

This is where solar space comes in, with its panels sufficiently much closer to the sun that they are not blighted by clouds and darkness.

“This would provide a baseload of energy 24/7 and 365 days a year – and has a fuel supply for the next five billion years,” said Mr Soltau, referring to the predicted date of the sun’s eventual demise.

Until recently, this project really would have been a pipe dream – but two developments mean it is now a realistic prospect, Mr Soltau says.

The first is the new generation of reusable rockets, such as the Falcon 9 launcher from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which mean satellites can be sent into space far more cheaply.

The cost of launching objects into low Earth orbit has gone from about $20,000 (£15,000) a kilogram in the early 2000s to less $3,000 now – and looks to fall below $1,000 in the coming years, he says.

At the same time, solar panels are much cheaper and more than three times as efficient as they were in the 1990s, meaning far fewer need to be sent into orbit to produce the same amount of energy.

Mr Soltau is hopeful, although by no means certain, that his study will find the technology to be feasible in economic and engineering terms – with the technology looking like it’s on track.

The five satellite solar power station system envisaged by the Government will probably cost more than £10bn – and potentially quite a lot more – more than the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which would produce roughly similar amounts of electricity, is expected to cost about £30bn, including decommissioning, Mr Soltau points out.

When all is said and done, there’s no getting away from the fact that building a satellite of that size and complexity in orbit is a mindboggling task. But it could well be feasible.

The article was accompanied by this diagram.

The captions read

  1. Solar reflectors: Orientation of satellite with respect to the Sun controlled to constantly reflect sunlight onto the solar power array below.
  2. Solar panels and transmitters: Approximately 60,000 layers of solar panels that collect the sunlight from the reflectors, and convert this to transmit high frequency radio waves.
  3. Power transmission: High frequency radio wave transmission from satellite to receiver on ground.
  4. Ground station: approximately 5k in diameter rectenna (a special type of receiving antenna that is used for converting electromagnetic energy into direct current (DC) electricity), generating 2 gigawatts of power enough for 2 million people at peak demand.

The solar reflectors are the objects which look rather like DVDs/CDs. The box at the top of the diagram gives the heights of a few other objects for comparison.

The ISS – 110m

The London Shard – 310m

The Burj Khalifa – 830m

The Cassiopeia solar satellite 1,700m.

The use of solar power satellites as a source of cheap, green energy was proposed decades ago, way back when I was at school in the 1970s. I first read about it in the Usborne Book of the Future. I don’t doubt that everything in the article is correct, and that the construction of such satellites would be comparable in price, or even possibly cheaper, than conventional terrestrial engineering projects. I went to a symposium on the popular commercialisation space at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society way back at the beginning of this century. One of the speakers was an engineer, who stated that the construction of space stations, including space hotels, was actually comparable in cost to building a tower block here on Earth. There was just a difference in attitude. Although comparable in cost, such space stations were viewed as prohibitively expensive compared to similar terrestrial structures.

Apart from the expense involved, the other problem solar power satellites have is the method of transmission. All the previous systems I’ve seen beamed the power back to Earth as microwaves, which means that there is a possible danger from cancer. The use of laser beams might be a way round that, but I still wonder what the health and environmental impact would be, especially if the receiving station is around 5 km long.

I also wonder if the project would ever be able to overcome the opposition of vested interests, such as the nuclear and fossil fuel industries. One of the reasons the Trump government has been so keen to repeal environmental legislation and put in place measures to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job, is because the Republican party receives very generous funding from the oil industry, and particularly the Koch brothers. And there are plenty of Tory MPs who also possess links to big oil.

At the moment this looks like a piece of industry PR material. It’s an interesting idea, and I’ve no doubt that it’s factually correct, but given the resistance of the British establishment to new ideas, and especially those which might involve government expenditure, I have grave doubts about whether it will actually ever become a reality. Fossil fuels might be destroying the planet, but there are enough people on the right who don’t believe that’s happening and who get a very tidy profit from it, that I can see the oil industry being promoted against such projects for decades to come.

Vox Political: May Gives Go-Ahead to Hinkley C Despite Security Fears

September 15, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political also put up a piece today reporting that May had finally folded, and given the French and Chinese the go-ahead to build the nuclear power station, Hinkley C in Somerset. The stations’ going to be built by the French state power company, EDF, and the Chinese. The project was put on hold because of concerns about security, which created tension between Britain and China. May and her business secretary, Greg Clarke, were claiming that they had put in place ‘significant new safeguards’. Mike points out that they seem far from it. The ban on EDF selling its share in the site without government permission is simple commerce, rather than security. And he considers a similar precaution, the new security test for foreign investment in critical infrastructure also to be ‘toothless’. As he points out, it won’t stop the Chinese going ahead with their plant at Bradwell in Essex, and investing further in Sizewell B in Suffolk. He quotes EDF’s chief executive, Jean-Bernard Levy, that the construction of Hinkley C marks ‘the relaunch of nuclear in Europe’.

Apart from May flatly ignoring Green concerns, this also doesn’t appear to be a good deal for the British customer either. The government has guaranteed EDF a price of £92.50 for every megawatt hour of electricity generated, despite the fact that this is higher than the market rate.

As Mike says

This is a step backwards – and a bitter blow for all those who have been working towards a greener, cleaner, forward-looking mode of energy generation.


I’m not remotely surprised by this. The Conservatives have always backed nuclear power at the expense of Green energy. Way back in the early 1990s under John Major, Private Eye documented the way the government was pushing nuclear, and doing everything it could to discredit its environmentally friendly competition. For example, reviews into the viability of renewable energy were given to government panels headed by scientists or officials from the nuclear industry.

And the Tories’ choice of nuclear power over other forms of energy, such as coal, has nothing to do with its supposed benefits. Certainly not if EDF are being given a price for their wattage above market value. I’ve forgotten where I read it, but I came across a piece the other day, which claimed that the Tories deliberately chose nuclear as a way of breaking the unions. Nuclear fuel – the uranium used in the rods in the reactor core – has to be imported. I think the main source of it at the moment is Africa, where obviously labour is cheap and disposable. Unlike coal, which exists over here, but whose supply was controlled by a notoriously strong and stroppy union, until Maggie broke it in the 1980s, and the Tories then decimated the industry itself in the 1990s.

This isn’t about supplying cheap electricity. This is about breaking organised labour, to keep people poor and cowed by the threat of unemployment. And it shows how wise Tony Benn was when he turned from being an advocate of it to its opponent.

Another Lie Exposed: Cameron ‘Cuts the Green Crap’

October 4, 2015

It was also reported on the news this week that Cameron had declared ‘Let’s cut the Green crap’, and is removing the subsidy given to solar energy. This should finally remove any doubts that Cameron was lying when he declared that his would ‘be the greenest government ever’. Not that there should really be any doubt about it – Cameron’s wholehearted support of fracking, despite the immense potential environmental damage that causes, should have shown that.

The BBC’s report showed workmen taking solar panels off roofs in preparation for the removal of the subsidies. The installation of solar panels has allowed many householders to make a bit of money, and lower their energy bills, if only by a small amount. Still, as ASDA, or Sainsbury’s or one of the other supermarkets has been trying to tell us, ‘every little bit helps’. But not, it seems, to Cameron’s cronies in this case. Private Eye reported over 20 years ago how Major’s government was blocking green and renewable energy, because of the links it had with the nuclear lobby. Now, two decades later, Cameron’s government is building nuclear power stations, like that, which is currently under construction at Hinkley C in Somerset. Clearly, all the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people with solar panels on homes are a major threat to corporate profits. Perhaps Cameron’s paymasters have told him that if he doesn’t get rid of them and the pesky people, who have them, they’ll be no lucrative sponsorship of the Tory party conference this year. They might also have threatened him with cutting their donations to the party, and refusing to give retiring Tory MPs places on the board when they leave office.

Or perhaps it’s simply a case that the big electricity companies can’t bear to see the small people generating power on their own, and have to be stopped. If so, it’s an almost feudal reaction. In the 13th century the feudal lords in England confiscated and smashed the querns their serfs and tenants were using to grind their corn at home. This allowed them to make their own bread free of charge, which their lords and masters simply couldn’t allow. So they banned their use in order to make the serfs use their mills, for which they charged them and so made more money out of their tenants. Cameron’s doing the same, only instead of querns, it’s electricity.

It still shows the fundamentally feudal, exploitative and grasping nature of this government, and the way it sees the British public as serfs to be owned and exploited.