MTC joins Space Energy Initiative for in-orbit solar

The Manufacturing Technology Center will play a leading role in the new UK Space Energy Initiative, which aims to develop solar energy technology in space.

Mark Garnier MP, Vice-Chairman of the All Party Space Group, at the launch of the Space Energy Initiative SEI

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

Despite recent advances in RF capabilities, the project is still billed by Westminster as a moonshot, the success of which relies 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 role of the MTC will be to support the development of these technologies, as well as upskill UK engineers and identify gaps in the required supply chains.

“We are proud to be a founding member of the SEI and to lead the way in developing UK industry and supply chain capabilities,” said Shan Dulanty, chief engineer at the MTC.

“To reach net zero, we need to develop new, renewable energy generation technologies that provide clean power continuously. Space-based solar energy is the concept of harvesting solar energy in space and beaming it to Earth. This could cover a significant percentage of the UK’s energy needs going forward.”

The SEI is chaired by Fraser Nash Consultancy and the Satellite Applications Catapult. In addition to 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 recently published a report warning about the human cost of solar energy as demand for renewable energy increases. The Energy of Freedom’?: Solar Energy, Modern Slavery and the Just Transition examines how demand for things like the polysilicon used in solar panels and cobalt for lithium-ion batteries is at risk of a forced labor boom.

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

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

“The industry needs a clear plan to quickly transition to slavery-free supply chains, or those who buy ‘slavery-free’ solar could simply be cross-subsidised from solar energy sold by the same suppliers to other customers and sold by the same suppliers. Whether solar will prove to be ‘the energy of freedom’ for consumers only, or for workers and producer communities too, remains to be decided.”

Abhishek Maheswari
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