The Race for Solar Energy from Space
Editor’s Note: The idea of solving land-based energy needs by collecting solar power in outer space may sound like an impractical futuristic dream, but it is attracting new attention today given the recent reminders about the dangers of producing energy on Earth.
But the United States, which gained a crucial technological lead in the Cold War from John F. Kennedy’s Mission to the Moon, is lagging on this new frontier as China and a freshly motivated Japan take the lead, William John Cox reports in this guest essay:
The failure of the General Electric nuclear reactors in Japan to safely shut down after the 9.0 Tahoku earthquake – on the heels of last year’s catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the deadly methane gas explosion in Massey’s West Virginia coal mine – underscores the grave dangers to human society posed by current energy production methods.
In Japan, the radiation plume from melting reactor cores and the smoke of burning spent fuel rods threaten the lives of the unborn; yet, they point in the direction of a logical alternative to these failed policies – the generation of an inexhaustible, safe, pollution-free supply of energy from outer space.
Presently, only the top industrialized nations have the technological, industrial and economic power to compete in the race for space-solar energy, with Japan occupying the inside track in spite of, and perhaps because of, the current disaster.
Japan is the only nation that has a dedicated space-solar energy program. Japan also is highly motivated to change directions.
China, which has launched astronauts into an earth orbit and is rapidly become the world’s leader in the production of wind and solar generation products, will undoubtedly become a strong competitor.
However, the United States, which should have every advantage in the race, is most likely to stumble out of the gate and waste the best chance it has to solve its economic, energy, political and military problems.
A Miraculous Source of Energy
Space-solar energy is the greatest source of untapped energy which could, potentially, completely solve the world’s energy and greenhouse gas emission problems.
The technology currently exists to launch solar-collector satellites into geostationary orbits around the Earth to convert the Sun’s radiant energy into electricity 24 hours a day and to safely transmit the electricity by microwave beams to rectifying antennas on Earth.
Following its proposal by Dr. Peter Glaser in 1968, the concept of solar-power satellites was extensively studied by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). By 1981, the organizations determined that the idea was a high-risk venture; however, they recommended further study.
With increases in electricity demand and costs, NASA took a “fresh look” at the concept between 1995 and 1997. The NASA study envisioned a trillion-dollar project to place several dozen solar-power satellites in geostationary orbits by 2050, sending between two gigawatts and five gigawatts of power to Earth.
The NASA effort successfully demonstrated the ability to transmit electrical energy by microwaves through the atmosphere; however, the study’s leader, John Mankins, now says the program “has fallen through the cracks because no organization is responsible for both space programs and energy security.”
The project may have remained shelved except for the military’s need for sources of energy in its campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the cost of gasoline and diesel exceeds $400 a gallon.
A report by the Defense Department’s National Security Space Office in 2007 recommended that the U.S. “begin a coordinated national program” to develop space-based solar power.
There are three basic engineering problems presented in the deployment of a space-based solar power system: the size, weight and capacity of solar collectors to absorb energy; the ability of robots to assemble solar collectors in outer space; and the cost and reliability of lifting collectors and robots into space.
Two of these problems have been substantially solved since space-solar power was originally proposed. New thin-film advances in the design of solar collectors have steadily improved, allowing for increases in the efficiency of energy conversion and decreases in size and weight.
At the same time, industrial robots have been greatly improved and are now used extensively in heavy manufacturing to perform complex tasks.
The remaining problem is the expense of lifting equipment and materials into space. The last few flights of the space shuttle this year will cost $20,000 per kilogram of payload to move satellites into orbit and resupply the space station.
It has been estimated that economic viability of space-solar energy would require a reduction in the payload cost to less than $200 per kilogram and the total expense, including delivery and assembly in orbit, to less than $3,500 per kilogram.
Although there are substantial costs associated with the development of space-solar power, it makes far more sense to invest precious public resources in the development of an efficient and reliable power supply for the future, rather than to waste U.S. tax dollars on an ineffective missile defense system, an ego trip to Mars, or $36 billion in risky loan guarantees by the DOE to the nuclear power industry.
With funding for the space shuttle ending next year and for the space station in 2017, the United States must decide upon a realistic policy for space exploration, or else it will be left on the ground by other nations, which are rapidly developing futuristic space projects.
China is currently investing $35 billion of its hard-currency reserves in the development of energy-efficient green technology, and has become the world’s leading producer of solar panels. In addition, China has aggressively moved into space by orbiting astronauts and by demonstrating a capability to destroy the satellites of other nations.
Over the past two years, Japan has committed $21 billion to space-solar energy. By 2030, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency plans to “put into geostationary orbit a solar-power generator that will transmit one gigawatt of energy to Earth, equivalent to the output of a large nuclear power plant.”
Japanese officials estimate that, ultimately, they will be able to deliver electricity at a cost of $0.09 per kilowatt-hour, which will be competitive with all other sources.
Consortium for Peace
President Kennedy once said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” The United States readily achieved that objective and, effectively, won the Cold War.
A similar challenge is now presented in the race for space-solar energy. What, if anything, will President Obama say or do?
Rather than a competition, however, the United States, China, Japan, and perhaps Russia, should organize a public service consortium to cooperatively produce energy from outer space.
Such a consortium could take advantage of the unique abilities of each nation to collectively produce space-solar energy, and it would avoid private corporate domination over the distribution of a product that is essential to human civilization.
A Space-Solar Energy Consortium would be a giant step toward world peace and a small leap into the universe of unlimited and unimaginable futures that surround and await us.
William John Cox is a retired prosecutor and public interest lawyer, author and political activist. His efforts to promote a peaceful political evolution can be found at VotersEvolt.com, his writings are collected at WilliamJohnCox.com, and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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