In response to the Government’s announcement on changes to the UK’s Net Zero strategy
Rishi Sunak’s new plan for Net Zero has caused a stir. Does it kick Net Zero down the road? It claims not to. Does it create uncertainty for the automotive sector, or the heat pump boiler sector? Some say yes. But what does it do for the next generation – Gen2 – green energy production? Those of us in the new technologies sector say it creates opportunity.
Around half our energy consumption in the UK is in transport fuel. Around a third is electricity. Convert all that old transport to electric vehicles and the problem of there being enough charge points fades into insignificance against the demands on the grid. Our generating capacity, and our distribution network, will have to double to meet the huge demand that transport needs.
To meet that demand, electricity delivered to the grid needs to be predictable and dispatchable. We need it when we need it – not when the wind blows or the sun shines. Storing excess wind and solar energy in batteries or green hydrogen is yet to exist at commercial scale. Additionally, the massive scaling up of our weather dependent renewables and battery electric vehicles will place huge demands on elements such as copper and lithium. And the expected tenfold increase in mining is bad for the environment and brings its own geopolitical challenges. We need to know where our predictable, clean, green electricity will come from.
The Prime Minister has identified exactly the right policy: backing British technology innovation as the most effective route to Net Zero. We need to develop a range of new energy technologies which work alongside our weather dependent renewables to keep our energy reliable and affordable. These technologies include new batteries, green Hydrogen, and Carbon capture. One of the most promising and exciting of these Gen2 technologies is space-based solar power.
Only now being openly talked about by the likes of UK astronaut Tim Peake, energy from space has been a concept for many decades. Large satellites harvest solar energy in Geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the equator, basking in near permanent, bright sunlight. The energy is beamed to Earth-based receivers using high frequency radio waves. It can provide constant reliable power, day and night, in all weather, for the UK, and all nations. There are no technology breakthroughs required. Solar panels have been used in space since the 1950s. Energy beaming in the form of radio waves has been around since the late 19th century. And space launch has been around since the Russians put up Sputnik 1 in October 1957.
Although the wider media has only just begun to talk more openly about space-based solar power, the UK has already been quietly leading in this area. Now, with the dramatic drop in launch costs, thanks to privateers like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the final economic barrier to space-based solar power has been removed and we have a huge opportunity to push forward and lead the world.
The Space Energy Initiative was set up three years ago and is a collaboration of over 80 companies, universities, and government departments. It is a nascent trade body bringing the skills together to deliver energy from space. The government is already funding research into this arena through the Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, which is being delivered by members of the Space Energy Initiative. Rishi Sunak’s latest announcement contained a single, innovative, and welcome announcement key to this sector: Future Fellowships. This programme is backed by £150 million of new funding to specifically support our leading scientists and engineers develop real and practical green technologies.
Unlike other new energy sources, space based solar power is not a faraway dream. The highly modular design of satellite means this can be developed, commercialised, and scaled up rapidly to deliver a significant proportion of the UK’s clean electricity within Net Zero timescales. Engineers working on this expect UK demonstrators to be beaming meaningful power to Earth within the next few years. Indeed, it is expected to have the first GigaWatt scale system – the equivalent of a nuclear power station, beaming energy to the UK by 2035.
Keeping our energy affordable, reliable, and secure as we transition to Net Zero is essential for the quality of life for people and for our economy. Space-based solar power will deliver base load, dispatchable power at similar prices to wind or Earth-based solar, with the predictability of gas or nuclear. And it will do this as one of the cleanest forms of energy available.
It is entirely probable that thanks to Rishi Sunak’s Future Fellowships, the UK will maintain its lead in Gen2 green energy production, and in the process, generate thousands of jobs across the regions.
Mark Garnier is the MP for Wyre Forest and the chair of the Space Energy Initiative advisory board and a non-executive director of Space Solar Group.