The use solar energy is forecasted to soar in the next eight years as the world’s population looks for alternatives to fossil fuels. It is estimated the sun can provide 219 thousand billion kilowatt hours of energy a year for 6.5 billion people, but converting the sun’s energy into a usable form in a cost-effective manner has proven difficult. Can the satellite industry use its experience with solar arrays to forge a new energy market direction?
In 1941, Isaac Asimov published a science fiction short story of a space solar power system orbiting on geostationary orbit that would beam down from space usable electrical energy. While the vision has taken a few practical steps since that time, the satellite industry should play a key role in making this dream of large-scale solar power production a reality. "The solar industry was born out of the space industry," says Ron Pernick, co-founder of the research firm, Clean Edge, a research and consulting firm focusing on clean technology, "It came out of Bell Labs of the very early implementation of solar for the space industry because they had a very definite requirement for space and satellites. In many ways the terrestrial solar industry has the space applications [industry] to thank for really helping solar gestation for up to two and three decades before it was ready for prime time terrestrially.... They feed on each other. It is a virtuous loop. It is important to pay homage to the fact that today’s modern terrestrial solar energy has very much the space industry to thank," Pernick adds.
John Mankins, president of Space Power Association, a private, international organization that promotes space solar power, estimates with today’s technology the project would cost $10 billion and be in place by 2025. "Energy from a solar power satellite would be transmitted in a coherent beam of low-intensity radio or light energy. An individual receiver on the ground might receive anywhere from 200 to 400 megawatts of power, up to 2,000 to 4,000 megawatts of power," he says. According to Mankins, "the development of space solar power must be an international undertaking and the U.S. should definitely play the leadership role in pulling together that effort."
Several U.S. federal agencies — Department of Energy, NASA, Department of Commerce — have reviewed the concept and concluded that it had no flaws and could be built. The U.S. Department of Defense’s National Security Office has been reviewing the concept as a way of providing energy for global troop deployment. The U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 saw the largest budget increase for solar research in U.S. history (to $148 million), but that pales in comparison with two other efforts — the California Solar Initiative, a $3.4 billion project signed into law in August 2006, and Google’s plans to install solar systems in what would be the largest solar electricity corporate campus ever built in California. Internationally, Japan’s Mitsubishi Electric is taking a leading technology role in Asia, and Canada and India have expressed interested in such an electrical grid from space. Chinese, Japanese and European space agencies also are funding research-related space solar power energy projects.