China's Longi Solar, the leading solar power maker on Earth, is now looking to dominate in space

Rendering of a space-based solar farm for terrestrial power. Image Credit: Northrup Grumman
Rendering of a space-based solar farm for terrestrial power. Image Credit: Northrup Grumman

Longi Green Energy Technology Co. propelled China as a global solar leader.

As the world’s largest solar panel manufacturer, the company has not only scaled utility, commercial, industrial, and residential solar, but has also progressed green hydrogen.

Now, the Xi’an-based clean energy giant is taking its panels from planet Earth to space, Bloomberg reports.

According to a statement posted yesterday, the company’s Future Energy Space Laboratory will “promote the integrated development of aerospace technology and new energy.”

The company states that this move aligns with four breakthroughs in the sector. Aside from the assimilation of clean energy and aerospace tech, Longi identifies space environment verification, energy monitoring satellites, and solar space transmission as emerging trends.

This galactic move could be a first step in the solar sector’s collaboration with China’s space program and toward off-planet power stations, Wu Zhijian, president of the China Space Foundation, a government-backed agency under the China National Space Administration, told Bloomberg.

The first major project of the lab will be exploring the reliability of projects in the harsh environment of space. But why would we want to take solar to the stars?

Celestial solar power has garnered attention because it could eliminate the major drawback of solar PVs: they don’t operate well in darkness.

Better known as space-based solar power (SBSP), the process would involve collecting the sun’s uninterrupted 24/7 energy from space, and then wirelessly transmitting it back to Earth via a beaming laser.

Because the solar panels would be active every minute of every day, these would provide way more energy than terrestrial panels. It could provide so much that, according to the National Space Society, it could dwarf all other sources of clean energy combined. It’s “limitless,” as the organization calls SBSP.

Like regular solar power, SBSP releases no greenhouse gas emissions. 60% of our energy still comes from fossil fuels, and the global energy need is expected to increase by 50% by 2050. A power source like SBSP can produce 40 times the amount of energy of regular solar, so why hasn’t it been scaled yet?

SBSP has yet to take off for outer space for four main reasons. One is predictably the costs associated with development and transportation. Two, there is a high risk of wasting energy as a giant laser beams watts and watts of solar energy back to Earth. Three, the technological demands of such a feat are also crazy experiences. And four, if we manage to get these monstrous panels into orbit, there’s the risk of them getting damaged by space debris.

But, research in the field is working to address these issues. As Bloomberg reported earlier this summer, Chinese researchers successfully tested a full-system model of SBSP.

The model, stationed at Xidian University in Shaanxi province, captures sunlight high above the ground and converts it into microwave beams, and transmits it through the air to a receiver on the ground where it is converted into electricity.

The model, while only beaming energy 55 meters through the air, could be expanded to send power from space to Earth, the researchers hope.

The tests come as China, already the global solar leader, plans to take the industry to space within the next decade. The China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), the country’s main, state-owned spacecraft maker, plans to conduct a “Space high voltage transfer and wireless power transmission experiment” in low Earth orbit in 2028 and a megawatt-level satellite by 2030.

The plan will go in phases, and ideally, the country plans to have a viable commercial space-based solar plant by 2050.

China, of course, has competition. Japan, Russia, India, and the U.S. are also studying the possibilities of taking solar to space.

In the states, SBSP is the focus of a $100 million partnership between aerospace and defense company Northrop Gruman and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory.

At Caltech, a $17.5 million Space Solar Power initiative aims to develop technology to allow SBSP to generate electricity at a lower cost. This comes after the university launched a space solar program after a $100 million grant in 2013. American spacecraft manufacturer, SpaceX is also working on reusable launch vehicles that can be used for space transport.

Europe is also seriously considering major investments. The UK’s proposal, specifically, aims for the operational development of a space satellite by 2040.

Japan, ahead of China’s launch year, hopes to demonstrate the technology by 2025.

In just a few years, the Tokyo-based Japan Space Systems aims to demonstrate that its satellite can send solar power back to Earth. The Japanese plan comes after decades of studying the idea's potential. If SBSP works, whether it be in Asia, the U.S., or Europe, it could change the industry (and the way we power our world) forever.