|Space-Based Solar Power: The Time Has Come|
|Friday, 01 July 2011 00:00 | Written by Steven Kotler | Commentary|
Personally, I’m a low-tech guy. Plain, simple, old-fashioned. And by low-tech, of course, I mean anything dreamt up by a science-fiction writer before 1950.
Seriously, by 1950 we’d dreamt up quite a lot.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Jules Verne fantasized TV news, nano-materials, spaceships, weightlessness, splashdowns, tasers, tape recorders, cloud writing, extraterrestrial communicators, deep-diving gear, retro-rockets, submarines—this list goes on.
Robots also qualify, coming to us via Karel Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), with the word derived from the Czech robota, for “forced labor.”
Solar energy dates back to 1726 and Gulliver’s Travels, though not exactly in the version we’re familiar with—“He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers”—but the sentiment has got to count for something.
Another thing that has to count for something is Isaac Asimov’s 1941 vision of a space station that soaks up energy from the sun and beams it back to earth via microwaves.
Now that’s dreamy.
A 2007 Pentagon study found that a one-kilometer-wide band of space in earth orbit receives solar energy in just one year equal to “the amount of energy contained within all known recoverable conventional oil reserves on Earth today.”
Without an atmospheric barrier, space-based solar panels could collect eight-to-ten times the amount of energy they would here on Earth. Even better, they could do so 24 hours a day, come rain or shine.
Dreamy, yes, but not actually science fiction.
In 1968, Peter Glaser—inventor, NASA-advisor and VP for Advanced Technology at Arthur C. Little—figured out in principle how to transmit electric power via microwaves. A study done in 1981 by the EPA, DOE, NASA and the Department of Commerce,researchers found no “insurmountable obstacles” to the whole idea. The hard proof came in 2008, when researchers sent a microwave beam 92 miles between two Hawaiian islands and kept it up for four months straight.
The 92-mile distance was chosen because it’s equivalent to the amount of atmosphere a microwave beamed from space would have to penetrate.
In fact, just about every piece in this puzzle—from inflatable mylar solar panels to the massive antennae needed to catch the signals back here on Earth—has been solved. The real remaining problems are those familiar devils: cost and will.
Skeptics often point out that despite the obvious advantages to space-based solar power, price will always be the determining factor. Currently, using existing technology, everyone’s best guess is that such a system would cost about $10 billion to install and generate electricity at—in a very optimistic scenario—50 cents per kWh.
Certainly that’s not cheap, but skeptics often forget the size of the mess we’re now in.
But shouldn’t we consider a little resource reallocation?
According to Greenpeace, Americans subsidize the fossil-fuel industry in the range of $15-to-$35 billion every year. And this doesn’t include the extra $2 billion we’re ponying up for the Clean Coal Technology Roadmap—a sure way to get lost if there ever was one.
Hmm. What could we spend those billions on…
Well, if you don’t like my low-tech solution, how about the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, ARPA-E—the newly established DOE big-think, no-idea-too-crazy, pie-in-the sky energy research lab.
ARPA-E is one of the Obama administration’s wondrous ideas, touted as our great hope for an environmentally friendly energy future, with a current operating budget of $400 million.
This means we’re willing to spend less than 1/25th (at the least) on serious innovation when compared to what we—meaning the taxpayers—spend subsidizing the extraction industries.
Note to the Obama administration—this isn’t the audacity of hope. It’s just audacity. Seriously, this one doesn’t even belong in the science-fiction category.
It belongs a few shelves over, filed under horror.
Written by Keith Henson , June 03, 2009Report abuse