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Electric Power Plants In Space: An Idea Whose Time Is Near

By | October 15, 2007

      Beam me down, Scotty – that is, beam me down an unlimited amount of electrical power to meet an enormous future world energy demand — all without creating one bit of greenhouse gases, global warming or carbon fuel usage.

      Sound too spacey Actually, several experts – sober and serious – say it can happen, with some help from folks at the Pentagon. This revolutionary energy source is, literally, out of this world: space-based solar power (SBSP).

      It involves rocketing large satellites into geostationary orbits, where they would hang far above Earth and deploy gigantic solar arrays to harvest immense amounts of electrical energy from the sun.

      With no clouds, dust, moisture or other atmospheric interference, these power plants in space each would be able to gather huge amounts of solar power almost non-stop, except for brief periods each day.

      That contrasts with ground-based solar electric systems using solar cells, systems that obviously can’t work at night.

      Power could be transmitted to the ground by radiofrequency, or more efficiently by high-energy lasers that could direct energy to collection stations on Earth where it is most needed at a given time.

      True, this all sounds like pie in the sky, or perhaps pie-shaped solar arrays in the sky.

      However, a collection of organizations says this could actually happen within a decade or so, and the organizations last week announced they formed a lobbying group called the Space Solar Alliance for Future Energy (SSAFE).

      According to members of the group, including former NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the world needs immense new sources of energy that won’t involve producing massive pollution or global warming problems.

      Solar power from space could provide clean electricity without limit, and without any carbon emissions, according to SSAFE leaders who briefed journalists at the National Press Club.

      Founding organizations in SSAFE are the National Space Society, the Space Frontier Foundation, the Space Power Association, the Aerospace Technology Working Group, the Marshall Institute think tank, the AIAA Space Colonization Technical Committee, ProSpace, the Space Enterprise Council of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Space Generation Foundation.

      The problem, briefers explained, is that a huge portion of the global population is living in poverty, but wishes to attain the American standard of living, or at least a modern standard, measured in per capita income.

      Providing everyone on the planet with an American standard of living would require multiple times the energy consumption now prevailing globally, briefers said. The global economy would have to expand by a factor of seven, or perhaps much more.

      To do that without gassing the globe with pollutants (greenhouse gases) or creating a huge hazardous waste or nuclear waste storage problem, solar power is vital, they said.

      The sun generates immensely more power than is consumed on Earth, vastly more power than all other energy sources on the planet combined, briefers said. That nearest star is the largest potential energy source for earthlings, and the greenest source, according to Mark Hopkins, senior vice president with the National Space Society.

      The society calculates that the Earth receives a minuscule one part in 2.3 billion of the total solar energy output.

      Further, the sun would be a power source that would permit the Department of Defense to avoid dependence on volatile, "unstable and unfriendly" sources of oil such as Middle Eastern nations, Hopkins said. That current dependence, he said, is "an important strategic issue."

      If the United States began using huge amounts of energy gathered in space, "we could turn this country into an energy exporting nation instead of an energy importing nation," Hopkins said.

      There is, however, a huge challenge here.

      One briefer, John Mankins, president of the Space Power Association, said what once seemed insurmountable in harnessing the power of the sun now is "feasible," but still some problems have been "stupendously difficult" to solve.

      "It’s a hard problem, but a tractable one, and solving it will be of tremendous benefit" to the human race, Mankins said.

      While the concept of satellites dangling in space using sun power and blazing lasers to power Earth may seem the stuff of science fiction, this isn’t some fantasy that won’t eventuate until the 22nd century, according to briefers.

      Rather, Mankins see palpable progress to beginning a realization of this technology within the next decade.

      Marine Corps Lt. Col. Paul Damphousse, with the National Security Space Office, said that "space solar power is closer than ever." Charles Miller, a director of the Space Frontier Foundation, said there are now signs that a business case for SBSP will be made within the next 10 to 15 years.

      A major practical impediment is that electricity generated using SBSP costs multiple times the price of electricity generated on Earth.

      Private industry or financial markets can’t be expected to bankroll this yet-untested technology, briefers said.

      That’s where the Department of Defense comes in, according to briefers.

      To kick-start the SBSP process, a huge user of energy must agree to pay those higher prices, and the U.S. military forces could do that.

      Damphousse cited a new report "advocating a government-led proof of concept" to demonstrate that SBSP actually can work.

      This necessarily would involve "a high-level coordinated national program with high-level leadership and resourcing," he said.

      And the United States wouldn’t be alone in its focus on SBSP, he said.

      Thus far, Japan, the European Union, Canada, India, China, Russia and others are interested in SBSP, Damphousse said.

      During the media briefing, a new report by the National Space Society was released, titled "Space Solar Power: An Investment for Today — An Energy Solution for Tomorrow" and available at on the Web by clicking on The Latest News from the National Space Society.

      Solar power from space, the report notes, can be available 24 hours a day regardless of cloud cover, daylight/nighttime or wind speed.

      Another major problem here is that the space-based generating plants would have to be huge, far larger than the International Space Station (which might be used as a test lab to try out an early, experimental SBSP installation).

      Costs of hoisting gigantic components into space for true SBSP generating stations would be huge, according to the National Space Society. But at least the power stations wouldn’t be as complex as the space station, and might not require human crews.

      To get around the huge cost of lifting giant components into space from Earth, one approach might be to mine the moon, or passing asteroids, gaining the material needed to build power stations, briefers said.

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