Daily Archives: November 5th, 2007

Electrical power from space: Soon to be reality?

From The Guardian :

At some point before 2050, satellites collecting solar power and beaming it back to Earth will become a primary energy source, streaming terawatts of electricity continuously from space. That’s if you believe a recent report from the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office, which says confidently that we will see “a basic proof-of-concept within 4-6 years and a substantial power demonstration as early as 2017-2020”.

It’s obvious in some ways: above the atmosphere, a solar cell receives about 40 times more energy per year than an equivalent site on the ground, due to the absence of atmospheric scattering and seasonal or nightly reductions in light.

The NSSO suggests that an orbiting spacecraft with solar panel arrays would be comparable to current ground-based installations spanning hectares and, eventually, a few square kilometres. Then that energy can be sent to the ground – using, the Pentagon suggests, a giant laser or microwave beam.

The report, Space Based Solar Power as an Opportunity for Strategic Security, suggests optimistically that one application will be the beaming of “energy aid” via satellite into conflict and disaster zones, minimising the human cost of resource wars and catastrophic events caused by global warming.

“The technology has been in development for a while,” says Joseph Rouge, associate director of the space office. “The truly hard and expensive part is going to be getting it into orbit. We’ll need regular launches and on-orbit robotic assembly systems. It’s a $10bn [£4.8bn] programme, but by 2050 it could deliver 10% of America’s power needs.”

I’ve been speculating on this for a while now. For the past seven years while the neocons have been in power, all of the government’s efforts have been concentrated in the Middle East in the hopes of securing oil fields and protecting/expanding Israel. All of the U.S. energy policy has revolved around oil and ways of either securing in it other countries, or attempts to expand drilling into the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. This is no surprise since the present regime is run by oil men (Cheneyburton & Bu$hco) and their propensity for secrecy, especially when it comes to energy policy.

Apparently that bastion of hardcore conservatism, the Pentagon, is the only forward thinking institution we have in place at the moment, because the aforementioned study was issued by them! Also it is interesting to note that the Pentagon space office is using a study issued by a German company that acknowledges the existance of Peak Oil and that we’ve already passed that point:

The space office sees energy supply as one of strategic importance as oil supplies dwindle; according to a report by Germany’s Energy Watch Group published last week, “peak oil” output occurred last year, and will fall by 7% annually to half its present levels by 2030. The space office notes that all remaining oil resources are estimated to contain 250 terawatt-years of energy; but that a one-kilometre wide band in geosynchronous orbit receives about 212 TW-years of energy each year.

Pretty ironic, wouldn’t you say? It’s a sad day for America when the only agency that has the pull to advance energy policy into the 21st century is the military. And it still can’t be funded by the government. The job will be bid out:

As of today, none of the agencies is funding a space solar power launch. Rouge says: “This is a commercial venture. The US government could be an initial customer, but they won’t be the ones to build it.” 

So in the final analysis, the system might not be built at all unless some private company(s) invents a cheap launch system. Maybe that is the best way to do it anyway. Competition between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison helped create the modern power grid in New York City which was the model on which the national grid was built.

We can only hope it will usher in an era of peace instead of perpetual resource wars.

James Bloom Guardian article