MTC joins Space Energy Initiative for in-orbit solar

2 min read

The Manufacturing Technology Centre is set to play a leading role in the UK’s new Space Energy Initiative, which is aiming to develop in-space solar energy technology.

Mark Garnier MP, vice-chair of the All Party Space Group, at the Space Energy Initiative launch (Credit: SEI)

Backed by the government, the SEI consortium plans to develop a Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) demonstrator by 2030, with a commercial system in place by the middle of the century. Large arrays of solar panels would harvest the Sun’s rays in-orbit, with satellites beaming the energy back to Earth via microwaves. While the concept of SBSP has been around since the 1980s, the radio frequency (RF) technology to transfer the energy has not been mature enough until now.

Despite recent advances in RF capabilities, the project is still being billed as a moonshot by Westminster, its success dependent on multiple cutting-edge technologies working in harmony. According to the MTC, the project will rely on robotic and automated assembly, teleoperations, remote control and connectivity, as well as emerging digital tools such as computer vision. The MTC’s role will be to support the development of these technologies, as well as upskill UK engineers and identify gaps in the requisite supply chains.

"We are proud to be a founding member of the SEI as well as taking a lead in the development of UK industry and supply chain capability,” said Shan Dulanty, chief engineer at the MTC.

"To achieve net zero we must develop new, renewable energy generation technologies that deliver continuous clean power. Space-based solar power is the concept of harvesting solar energy in space and beaming it to earth. This could provide a substantial percentage of the UK's energy needs in the future."

The SEI is co-chaired by Fraser Nash Consultancy and the Satellite Applications Catapult. Alongside the MTC, other founding partners include Airbus, the Energy Systems Catapult, Innovate UK, Lockheed Martin, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and several UK universities.

Back on Earth, Nottingham University’s Rights Lab has recently published a report warning on the human costs of solar as demand for renewable energy increases. The Energy of Freedom’?: Solar energy, modern slavery and the Just Transition explores how demand for things like the polysilicon used in solar panels and cobalt for lithium-ion batteries risks driving a boom in forced labour.

While the potential human toll of such a situation is obvious and needs to be addressed urgently, the report also notes how it could impact the energy transition, with the solar market potentially splitting into ‘slavery-free’ and ‘slave-made’ value-chains that could raise costs and impede decarbonisation.

“The solar energy sector urgently needs a ‘roadmap’ to address modern slavery risks if it is to be seen as ‘the energy of freedom’,” said Nottingham University’s Professor James Cockayne, lead author of the study.

“The industry needs a clear plan to transition rapidly to slavery-free supply-chains, or those buying ‘slavery-free’ solar may simply end up cross-subsidising slave-made solar energy sold by the same suppliers to other customers. Whether solar energy will prove to be ‘the energy of freedom’ for consumers alone, or also for workers and producer communities, is yet to be decided.”