What is space-based solar power? (with audio)
Why is energy independence for our country so important?
I see energy independence not as an isolationist concept but as broadened choices of cleaner, more plentiful energy for entire world. The definition of energy independence must also include independence from non-renewable fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas, etc.). Energy independence is so important because it affects several critical areas to our country, such as national security, the economy and the environment.
I can remember when gasoline was about 25 cents a gallon in the 1960’s. Today it is often over $3.00 a gallon and crude oil is $100 a barrel. In 1960, the U.S. population was about 180 million and today it is nearly 310 million. There have been several energy crises (increased price or decreased supply) in the U.S. since the 1960’s. The 1973 oil crisis was caused by an OPEC oil export embargo and the 1979 energy crisis was caused by an Iranian revolution. Again in 1990, a spike in the price of oil was caused by the Gulf War. During 2000-2001, a California electricity crisis was caused by failed government deregulation coupled with several instances of business corruption. The most recent oil price increases of 2004-2007 have been caused by increasing demand from the U.S and China, the falling state of the U.S. dollar and stagnation of production due to the war in Iraq.
Energy crises of the future will likely be more severe. Energy scarcity will give rise to even more international conflicts in the future. As world population grows, the laws of supply and demand will eventually break when the demand for natural resources exceeds the total capacity of the planet to sustainably supply them. World population is projected to rise from today’s 6.6 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050. (United Nations Population Division, 2007). Abundant, affordable energy is required to sustain our most basic needs for clean air, clean water and a safe food supply.
President Bush, in the 2006 State of the Union Address said, “America is addicted to oil.” The U.S. currently imports between 50% – 60% of the crude oil we use and we pay between $400 and $500 billion per year for that imported crude oil. This makes us dependent on many who are not necessarily our friends. Threats of price increases or limitations of supply and come from energy cartels (OPEC) or energy superpowers (Iran, Venezuala, etc.). Carbon emission price increases, penalties and pressure to reduce emissions can come from international bodie like the United Nations and its Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Kyoto Protocol (reduction of greenhouse gas emissions) would put significant financial penalties on the U.S. for failing to meet the requirements of the treaty. Our reliance on foreign energy gives others a lever (or a stick) to use against us. Energy independence will give us many more political options when dealing with these external forces.
Space-based solar power addresses many of the issues related to energy independence. Nearly every source of energy we use today can be traced back to the Sun, which is a huge nuclear (hydrogen fusion) furnace. Space-based solar power is a potentially unlimited source of clean energy and it could eventually supply all of our country’s needs. Instead of importing vast amounts of fossil fuels, the U.S. could become a major exporter of energy & technology.
America can use the platform of energy to once again set an example of what being a good citizen-nation of the world is all about. Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico and former Secretary of Energy (1997-2001), has published his vision for our energy future in a book titled “Leading by Example”. He offers the warning “America is just one crisis away from an energy emergency that will completely disrupt daily life, sharply increase energy prices, and perhaps even lead to military intervention in the world energy markets.” And he also offers hope for our energy future when he states “The American people are full of optimism and ingenuity. The people of the world want to believe that we are responsible and compassionate, that we are committed to freedom and basic fights, and that we want to participate constructively in world affairs. Visionary leadership, and visonary action to implement a new role for the United States, will turn the situation around quickly, and America will find itself surrounded by friends and allies once again.”
What is space-based solar power?
Let me start by clarifing some terminology. All of the following terms refer to the same concept. Space Based Solar Power (SBSP), Space Solar Power (SSP) and Solar Power Satellite (SPS) are all used interchangeably although Space Solar Power (SSP) is the most common term used. This website uses Space Based Solar Power, as it was the term used in the most recent National Space Security Office study.
There are three fundamental elements to space-based solar power.
The first element consists of large solar panels in space near the Earth. These solar panels could be up to several square miles in size, depending on the capacity required. They would be placed in one of several orbits, including Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Geo synchronous (or stationary) Orbit (GEO), or even Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO). Eventually, a constellation of satellites would be required. Another location for the space-based solar panels would be on the surface of the Moon. Wherever they are placed, these solar panels would continuously collect massive amounts of electromagetic (light) energy, since solar radiation is eight times more intense in space than on the ground and they would not be subject to the day-night cycles of the Earth’s revolution or impeded by varying weather conditions. These solar panels would most likely employ photovoltaics (PV) similar to current ground-based solar panel technology for conversion of light to electricity, although other conversion methods have also been considered.
The second element consists of the wireless power transmission (WPT) from the solar power satellite to the surface of the Earth. Electromagnetic energy would be beamed wirelessly back to earth at frequencies most efficient to carry energy through the atmosphere. These frequencies would most likely be in the microwave range, although the beam would be similar in intensity to 1/6 that of noon sunlight.
The third element consists of the rectifying antennas (rectennas) which would receive the wireless power transmission from the solar power satellites and convert it to alternating current power that would be connected directly into the existing electrical power distribution grid as a source of baseload power. This power could also be used to manufacture synthetic hydrocarbon fuels (synfuels) in a liquid form or even to be used as low-intensity broadcast power beamed directly to consumers.
Is space-based solar power a new idea?
Space-based solar power first conceived of in the late 1960’s, during the widely supported Apollo program. It was patented by Dr. Peter Glaser in 1968, when gasoline was a quarter a gallon, access to space was still a new frontier and technologies like photovoltaics and wireless power transmission were new and undeveloped. World population was much lower than today and so was the demand for energy. The business case for space-based solar power no where near closing. The world has changed in significant ways since then.
Space-based solar power has been studied several times by government agencies over last 40 years. It was examined extensively during the late 1970s by the D.o.E. and NASA and then reexamined by NASA from 1995-1997 in the “fresh look” study. The concept was studied again in 1998 in a “concept definition study” by NASA, which was followed in 1999-2000, when NASA undertook the SSP Exploratory Research and Technology (SERT) program. During 2001-2002, NASA pursued an SSP Concept and Technology Maturation (SCTM) program follow-on to the SERT and also in 2001, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) released a major report, providing the results of a peer review of NASA’s SSP strategic research and technology study.
Most recently, the National Space Security Office released an updated feasibility study “Space Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security” in October of 2007. What are the results of all these Space-based solar power studies? The good news is that each time it has been studied, the technology and business cases are closer to being feasible and much of the basic knowledge for space-based solar power is already in place. The bad news is that most citizens have not yet heard of space-based solar power, it is not a part of the national conversation on energy and it is not yet a part of national policy or roadmap for America’s energy future.
How does space-based solar power compare with other energy sources?
Let me start with some important definitions. A baseload power plant is one that provides a steady flow of power regardless of total power demand by the grid. Baseload power plants are usually fueled with coal or nuclear fission. Peaking power plants are power plants that generally run only when there is a high demand for electricity. Peaking power plants are usually natural gas, oil or hydroelectric powered.
Comparing space-based solar power to fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas, etc.), both provide baseload power but the burning of fossil fuels create harmful emissions which may be contributing to global warming. Space-based solar power creates emissions only upon construction of the equipment and launching it into orbit. Fossil fuels will eventually run out and the demand is increasing with population growth and increases in per capita energy consumption around the world. Space-based solar power will run out when the sun burns out … and when that happens, we’ll have bigger fish to fry!
Comparing space-based solar power to nuclear power, both provide baseload power but current nuclear fission creates radioactive waste, of which we have already already accumulated thousands of tons which must be safely tracked and stored long into the future, perhaps as long as 10,000 years. Space-based solar power radiates heat generated during the conversion of light to electricity back into deep space.
Comparing space-based solar power to wind power, both are clean sources of energy but wind power is intermittent, so it can’t reliably provide baseload power. Wind power is well suited to certain geographical areas whereas space-based solar power can be delivered anywhere on the Earth.
Comparing space-based solar power to ground solar power, both are clean sources of energy but ground solar power is intermittent, so it can’t reliably provide baseload power. Ground solar power is well suited to certain geographical areas. Solar energy in space is eight times more intense than after passing through the atmosphere and again, space-based solar power can be delivered anywhere on the Earth.
Comparing space-based solar power to biofuels, biofuels (such as corn or sugar ethanol) require tremendous amounts of agricultural production. So far, biofuels have less energy per unit than fossil fuels. Space-based solar power does not compete with food production.
Are you saying we should focus only on space-based solar power?
Not at all. Putting all our eggs in one basket not wise, but I believe that a complex problem demands a complex solution. Other renewable energy technologies are well suited to local regions. For example the Horse Hollow Wind Energy Center in Texas is the largest wind power installation in the world and it supplies about 230,000 homes with eletricity. The planned ground based solar power station in Victoria, Australia will be the largest solar power installation in the world and it is projected to supply about about 45,000 homes with electricity.
The development of space-based solar power will help other renewable energy technologies with spin-off technologies in the areas of photovoltaics, exotic materials, manufacturing techniques and many more.
Space-based solar power is a long-term solution with huge social and economic potential. It could actually be the game-changing energy technology, the elusive “silver bullet”, that is needed to address many of the energy and environment related problems we face today. Some estimates put space-based solar power at potentially a one trillion dollar a year industry.
Here’s a quote from the GA Tech Space Solar Power Workshop:
“Escalating tension between our environment and energy choices drove us to search for the best energy choice. That choice is Space Solar Power – the cleanest electricity generation process known. Gathered by satellites in geosynchronous orbit for use on Earth, pure clean energy would be beamed gently to earth. Space Solar Power should become the major source of the world’s energy and electric power to minimize our environmental footprint.”
I believe space-based solar power should be the cornerstone technology in our energy future. The United States must take the lead role in it’s development, deployment and management. There is great value in being first to market with any new product, let alone a breakthrough application of technology.
What are the main hurdles to developing and deploying space-based solar power?
Let me start by saying that I believe there are three solutions to every complex problem. First, the technical solution – how are we going to solve the problem (often the easiest). Second, the financial solution – who is going to pay for / profit from the solution. And third, the political solution – who is going to organize the solution … and take credit for it.
The technical solution for space-based solar power is exciting because no scientific breakthroughs are needed. It is essentially a complex engineering project. The technical solution will initially be dependent on developing low cost and reliable access to space, but later we could use resources mined from Moon and near Earth objects like asteroids.
The financial solution will admittedly be very expensive at first, so there must be an early adopter, like the Defense Department, to provide a market and rewards for those willing to invest in space based solar power and the supporting technologies. Engineering and scientific advancements and the commercialization of supporting technologies will soon lead to ubiquitous and low cost access to space and more widespread use of wireless power transmision. Economies of scale will eventually make space-based solar power affordable, but probably never cheap again, like energy was fifty years ago. Eventual Moon based operations will reduce costs significantly, since it takes twenty-two times less energy to launch from Moon than from Earth’s gravity well and the use of lunar materials will allow heavier, more robust structures.
The political solution will most likely be the biggest hurdle to the development of space-based solar power because so many areas have to be negotiated and agreed upon, not only within the United States, but with our allies around the world, too. Strong energy independence legislation is the first step that needs to be taken immediately. Treaties and agreements for the military and commercial use of space must be negotiated and put into place. Universal safety measures must be agreed upon and integrated into related legislation and treaties. Getting widespread voter (i.e. tax-payer) support to prompt Congress to take action may be the highest hurdle of all.
Who should be responsible for developing space-based solar power?
The U.S. Government must take a lead role in creating an environment that will enable the development of space-based solar power. Congress must organize a public – private effort because existing agencies, such as the U.S. House Committee on Science & Technology, the Department of Energy, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office and NASA, are not set up for the large scale manufacturing that will be required.
The U.S. private sector will be key in the development of space-based solar power, and there is much precedent for Congress to foster just that kind of private sector development. The 1984 Commerical Space Launch Act was signed by President Reagan and the 1990 Launch Services Purchase Act was signed by President Bush. These Acts resulted in the private partnership, the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which places most U.S. payloads in orbit today. Arianespace, another private company, is similarly responsible for most European payloads. Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), such as Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) are already competing for U.S. orbital services contracts. Virgin Galactic, owned and operated by Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan, are already making inroads in space tourism.
U.S. Allies, composed of 26 NATO Allies (United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, etc.) and 14 Major Non NATO Allies (Australia, Egypt, Japan, etc.) will also play vital roles in the development of space-based solar power. Space-based solar power should eventually benefit every citizen of the world.
Georgia Tech supports a congressionally chartered public / private corporation, much like the 1862 Transcontinental Railroad Act which opened the West and the 1962 Commercial Satellite (COMSAT) Act which is now $100 Billion industry. The Georgia Tech Space Solar Power Workshop recommends the next great Congressional Act be called the SunSat Corporation. Here is an excerpt from the already written Charter – General Provisions – Opening Policy Statement:
“The Congress declares that it is the policy of the United States to establish, in conjunction and in cooperation with other countries, as expeditiously as practicable a commercial space solar power satellite system, as part of environmentally enhanced and improved global electric power generation and networks, which will be responsive to public needs and national objectives, which will serve the growing electric power needs of the United States and other countries, and which will contribute to world peace, understanding, harmony and increased sustainable electric power generation and economic development.”
Who should be the first customers for space-based solar power?
U.S. Department of Defense would make a great early adopter / first customer for space-based solar power. At least one estimate from the war in Iraq claim that the totally burdened cost to deliver a of gallon of fuel to the troops is between $20 – $80. That may seem very high until it is compared with the cost in human life. Many soldiers have been killed or injured when their fuel convoys were attacked en route. A portable rectenna receiving power beamed directly from a solar power satellite could eliminate the need for most of those fuel convoys.
Worldwide disaster relief efforts are another area where space-based solar power might first be used. After Katrina, if portable rectennas could have been helicoptered in to provide temporary power to local grids, if they were still intact or using wireless power transmission if they weren’t operational, mobile hospital units, food banks, pumping stations and many other critical disaster relief services could have been up and running much sooner than they were.
Remote, isolated populations would benefit greatly from space-based solar power. Rural electrification technology, consisting of a low cost rectenna and electrical distribution system would dramatically improve the quality of life almost immediately. A remote African village that suddenly had access to sanitation, water purification, refrigeration, lighting air conditionin and heat and communication would be able to provide for the health and human needs of its people.
An AP article in the December 24, 2007 Atlanta Journal-Consitution titled “`Drilling Up’ Into Space for Energy” contained some very interesting quotes:
“American entrepreneur Kevin Reed proposed that Palau’s uninhabited Helen Island would be an ideal spot for a small demonstration project, a 260-foot-diameter “rectifying antenna,” or rectenna, to take in 1 megawatt of power transmitted earthward by a satellite orbiting 300 miles above Earth.”
“The climate change implications are pretty clear. You can get basically unlimited carbon-free power from this,” said Mark Hopkins, senior vice president of the National Space Society in Washington.
To Robert N. Schock, an expert on future energy with the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, space power doesn’t look like science fiction. “I wouldn’t be surprised at the beginning of the next century to see significant power utilized on Earth from space – and maybe sooner.”
Are there other reasons you believe we should be developing space-based solar power?
Yes, several very important ones. U.S. manufacturing and technology companies are concerned about being able to hire enough capable employees to replace the experienced workforce, a large percentage of which will be elgible to retire within the next ten years. Our domestic “intellectual feedstock” is very low, which is one of many reasons we haven’t built any new nuclear facilities in the last twenty-five years. Like the Apollo and other U.S. space programs did so many years ago, space-based solar power will inspire new generations of U.S. science and technology graduates.
The U.S. domestic manufacturing base is badly eroded, and while some economists say that we are moving towards a service-based economy, common sense tells me that we should regain our independence and self-sufficiency in many areas necessary to support our society. Now that what seems like the majority of our clothing, computers, cars, oil, toys and electronics are imported, space-based solar power will support the development of new domestic manufacturing industries.
We will also benefit from spin-offs similar to the original space program (microelectronics, internet, velcro, Tang, etc.) Better earth-based solar power efficiences will be gained. Low cost and reliable access to space will support many new industries. Perhaps a space tourism industry will be the forerunner of space colonization. Manufacturing in zero gravity and the hard vacuum of space will yield new materials and new products. Moon and asteroid based operations, such as the mining of natural resources from the Moon and asteroids will provide a platform for planetary protection from NEO (meteor / asteroid) strikes.
The U.S. could become a major exporter of affordable energy and of energy and conservation technologies. But most importantly, the development of space-based solar power would demonstrate our nation’s belief in democracy and freedom for the entire human race. Space-based solar power gives the United States a great opportunity to regain a respected leadership role, not by force, but by example.
Where to you see space-based solar power over the next 100 years?
The goals for the development, deployment and scaling up of space-based solar power will span many administrations and generations, but that does not mean we can afford to put off getting started. We need a strong energy independence policy immediately and the cornerstone of that policy must be space-based solar power.
A concept demonstrator, capable of delivering 10 MWe to a terrestrial rectenna must be operational by 2015.
At least 50% of U.S. baseload power requirements should be produced by space-based solar power by 2050, with excess capacity for exportation.
The vast majority of worldwide energy requirements should be produced by space-based solar power by 2100, along with a worldwide declaration of fossil fuel independence.
What made you decide to become an advocate for space-based solar power?
I found myself watching the cable news channels and growing more and more negative as time went on. I was concerned about the phenomenon of “bystander apathy”, where folks see their neighbors in a life and death struggle but close their blinds, thinking “I don’t want to get involved.”
A saw a link to the National Security Space Office Phase 0 Architecture Feasibility Study titled “Space-Based Solar Power as an Opportunity for Strategic Security” in an electronic newsletter for Aviation Week & Space Technology. I read the report from cover to cover and got both excited and inspired. I decided to do something positive with those feelings.
Why did you start the website “Citizens for Space Based Solar Power”?
I was inspired by the feasibility study collaborative methodology and by the Space Solar Power discussion website. A website can reach lots of people and I thought I could put together a website which could be a source of information about space-based solar power for “regular folks”.
What information is on the website “Citizens for Space Based Solar Power”?
There is a plain language introduction to the concept of space-based solar power along with posts drawing attention to current events and related resources. The website includes goals for c-sbsp.org and goals for the overall space-based solar power effort.
I have included a frequently asked questions (FAQ), which you are reading now! There are links to learn more about space-based solar power and resources for contacting leaders in government, private sector and the media. I have also included starter messages to give folks a place to begin expressing their own personal thoughts about space-based solar power. Finally, there is a feedback and discussion feature on each section of the website, to encourage participation and give folks another outlet to express their thoughts and feelings.
What do you want other citizens to do to support space-based solar power?
That is probably the most important question of all. I want folks to visit the “Citizens for Space-Based Solar Power” website (c-sbsp.org or csbsp.org) and learn about space-based solar power and all of its potential. Then they will be ready to inform friends and family and ask them to get involved, take positive actions and contact leaders and decision-makers in govermnent, private sector and media. We need to make them aware of space-based solar power and ask for their support in making energy independence a national priority. We all need to ask them to make space-based solar power the centerpiece of our energy independence efforts.