A limitless power source for the indefinite future

November 11, 2011 by Amara D. Angelica

Space solar power satellite, artist's impression (credit: SpaceWorks Engineering, Inc./Spaceworks Commercial)

On Monday, the National Space Society (NSS) will present findings from an eye-opening new report by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA). You’re hearing about this here first. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the NSS board of directors.)

Some background: By 2030–40, the projected annual electrical energy consumption will be a staggering 220 trillion kiloWatt hours, double the consumption in 2010 — and four times more by 2090–2100, according to the International Energy Agency and  U.S. Department of Energy.

“Economic concerns have diverted attention from energy policy and limited the means of intervention,” the International Energy Agency reports in its 2011 World Energy Outlook. “Post-Fukushima, nuclear is facing uncertainty. MENA [Middle East and North Africa] turmoil raised questions about the region’s investment plans. Some key trends are pointing in worrying directions: CO2 emissions rebounded to a record high, energy efficiency of the global economy worsened for the 2nd straight year, and spending on oil imports is near record highs.”

Global energy demand increases in mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent) by one-third from 2010 to 2035, with China & India accounting for 50% of the growth (credit: International Energy Agency)

The space solar power solution

In 2002, Dr. Martin Hoffert, Professor Emeritus of Physics, New York University, proposed a radical solution to what appears to be a serious coming energy shortfall (Science, 2002): space solar power (SSP) — collect energy from space and transmit it wirelessly anywhere in the world.

The basic concept, invented in the late 60s by Dr. Peter Glaser of Arthur D. Little: a large platform, positioned in space in a high Earth orbit continuously collects and converts solar energy into electricity. This power is then used to drive a wireless power transmission system that transmits the solar energy to receivers on Earth. Because of its immunity to nighttime, to weather or to the changing seasons, the SPS concept. has the potential to achieve much greater energy efficiency than ground based solar power systems.

There are significant advantages to SSP compared to ground solar power, according to an NSS statement: solar energy in space is seven times greater per unit area than on the ground, and the collection of solar space energy is not disrupted by nightfall and inclement weather, avoiding the need for expensive energy storage. And it’s especially valuable for isolated areas of the world (parts of Africa and India, for example.)

SSP technically feasible in 10–20 years

However, so far, the SSP concept has lacked the needed in-depth technology,  market, and economic assessment. (I’ve personally been skeptical.)  But on Monday Nov. 14 at a press conference (open to the public) at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the National Space Society will announce the findings of an impressive three-year, ten-nation study of space solar power by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), co-chaired by John Mankins, a 25-year NASA veteran who headed NASA’s study of space solar power in the 90s, and Prof. Nobuyuki Kaya, Vice Dean of the Graduate School of Engineering, Kobe University.

Its findings include:

  • Space solar power appears to be technically feasible within 10–20 years using technologies existing now in the laboratory;
  • It appears to be economically viable in the next 1–3 decades under several different scenarios for future energy markets, including potential government actions to mediate environment/climate change issues;
  • Low-cost Earth-to-orbit transportation systems appear to be technically feasible during the coming 20–30 years using technologies existing in the laboratory now;
  • Flight experiments are needed, and policy-related and regulatory issues must be resolved.

Occupy space

“The report  gets across one very basic message: in the eyes of the leading experts on aerospace technology worldwide: harvesting solar power in space and transmitting it to earth is no longer science fiction,” says author Howard Bloom in a companion announcement by the Space Development Steering Committee. “It is sound, current-technology-based science fact.  And it is a green energy option we can’t ignore.

“SSP produces no greenhouse gases.  It offers a way out of the trap of climate change. It is supremely sustainable.  It can make us a net energy exporter, a position the United States enjoyed until 1951. And, as a National Space Security Office report on space solar power points out, SSP is an energy source that can end our hemorrhage of cash to hostile oil nations and can save us from the trillion dollar budgets of energy wars. No wonder a recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute concluded that ‘A successful effort,’ in space solar power ‘could provide unprecedented levels of clean and renewable energy.’”

“Without any doubt the components technology for space solar power as well as various system concepts have been developed and tested successfully,” says Dr. Neville I. Marzwell, NASA-JPL Advanced Concepts and Technology Innovation Manager (recently retired). “The next logical steps are the validation of power transmission from space to ground, and power storage at a continuously increasing level to validate the economical analysis and create financial, technical, social, environmental, and political support across the globe. The industrial countries of the world cannot and should not miss this opportunity to meet their energy demand safely while creating financial and job growth.”

“We run on energy like Rome ran on slavery,” says Hoffert.”But we’ve hit an economic, energy and environmental wall. Space-based solar power is a technologically ready path over the wall to sustainable high tech civilization on Earth; an ideologically cross-cutting approach encompassing the military-industrial complex and Occupy Wall Street.

“It can create real jobs, both near- and long-term in orbital light and power industries of the 21st century much as the NASA’s Apollo Program industrialized the South to produce high tech cars and aircraft today. And of course space-based solar power offers a unique challenge to the U.S. in the spirit of Steve Jobs and Silicon Valley: ‘Don’t tell us the sky’s the limit when our footprints are on the Moon.’”

Ref.: John C. Mankins, Editor, Space Solar Power: The First International Assessment of Space Solar Power: Opportunities, Issues and Potential Pathways Forward, International Academy of Astronautics, 2011

Without any doubt the components technology for space solar power as well as various system concepts have been developed and tested successfully. The next logical steps are the validation of power transmission from space to ground, and power storage at a continuously increasing level to validate the economical analysis and create financial, technical, social, environmental, and political support across the globe. The industrial countries of the world cannot and should not miss this opportunity to meet their energy demand safely while creating financial and job growth.

Dr. Neville I. Marzwell, NASA-JPL Advanced Concepts and Technology Innovation Manager (retired),

Amara D. Angelica is Editor of KurzweilAI