Clean Power

Published on July 28th, 2008 | by Ariel Schwartz

42

Solar Power From Outer Space Could Reduce Fossil Fuel Dependence

July 28th, 2008 by  

The Sun

Rising fuel costs have spurred some pretty wacky ideas. One that maybe isn’t so crazy is harvesting solar power from space. While the idea isn’t new—NASA and The US Department of Energy studied it throughout the 1970s—the time has come when it might not be too expensive to start pursuing it.

Pravna Mehta, the director of India operations for Space Island Group, a company working to develop solar satellites, thinks space energy has excellent potential. According to his vision, satellites would electromagnetically beam solar energy to ground-based receivers, where the energy would be converted to electricity and transferred to power grids.

Since satellites in high Earth orbits are unaffected by earth’s shadows, the energy would be available every day without fail.

Unfortunately, it may be awhile before we see any concrete results from this idea.

While a 2007 Pentagon report encourages the development of space power, Charles Miller of the Space Frontier Association estimates that it will only be possible within the next ten years if we act now.

At the same time, getting into space isn’t cheap, the robotic technology to create solar satellites is not yet available, and someone has to take care of the billion dollar bill for the whole thing.

But with interest from Russia, China, the European Union, and India—and growing anxiety around the world about energy access— perhaps we might be using energy from outer space within our lifetimes.

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About the Author

was formerly the editor of CleanTechnica and is a senior editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine, and more. A graduate of Vassar College, she has previously worked in publishing, organic farming, documentary film, and newspaper journalism. Her interests include permaculture, hiking, skiing, music, relocalization, and cob (the building material). She currently resides in San Francisco, CA.



  • Uncle B

    Grandiose! Magnififabolous! “Manhattan Project” scale! and look at the ka-Ka that got us into! a bomb to destroy all mankind, Cowboys! and fission waste we cannot cope with to this day! First, we must try the small. known stuff, and get it right, like the Wind Corridor, and South Western deserts filled with Solar Thermal Power Plants Producing, and perhaps even annexing or renting desert from Mexico for mirrors! Offshore Wind Power, well studied, feasible, and can source enough power for the whole nation, in perpetuity, gets a blind eye? Not spectacular, or risky enough? Dumb-ass Yankee Doodles! Get on with it! Do what you have to do and forget the pie in the sky Bull Shiite! Put your rockets away, they are expensive, low return toys! Build the Wind Turbines, the Solar Mirrors, and the power infrastructures you desperately and most immediately need! Plan them so as they can continue development even through your economic downturns, and so that corporate greed and capitalist’s ravenous appetites can’t hurt them, through socialist government policies, so they don’t collapse in GM(American) style defeat! And, Get on with it! before it is too late! Before we are “Third World” with no means to proceed – we may be too late already! Most American capital has fled our shores to Asia, to build a new powerful counter-society there,with capital earned and having sweat equity here! stolen by the shyster capitalist uber rich from us for a % ROI, no patriotism involved! We were sucked in by contract, and while we planned “Moon Walks” and depended on depleting Arab oil, instead of Solar, Wind, Wave, Tidal, geo-Thermal and super insulation technologies! Will China do perpetual Solar, Wave, Wind tidal, geo thermal and super insulation projects in practical manner, while we foolishly cavort on Mars, prancing and planting flags on indefensible folly for egomaniac reasons alone? while we try to build “Death Beams” in space to aim at ourselves for power? The dreams of nine year olds? Just how energy starved does America get before it grows up and does the right things? Will we make it or revel in our follies til it is too late? Put down the “Bong” America! Time of reckoning? When the next downturn comes! Soon enough!

  • Uncle B

    Grandiose! Magnififabolous! “Manhattan Project” scale! and look at the ka-Ka that got us into! a bomb to destroy all mankind, Cowboys! and fission waste we cannot cope with to this day! First, we must try the small. known stuff, and get it right, like the Wind Corridor, and South Western deserts filled with Solar Thermal Power Plants Producing, and perhaps even annexing or renting desert from Mexico for mirrors! Offshore Wind Power, well studied, feasible, and can source enough power for the whole nation, in perpetuity, gets a blind eye? Not spectacular, or risky enough? Dumb-ass Yankee Doodles! Get on with it! Do what you have to do and forget the pie in the sky Bull Shiite! Put your rockets away, they are expensive, low return toys! Build the Wind Turbines, the Solar Mirrors, and the power infrastructures you desperately and most immediately need! Plan them so as they can continue development even through your economic downturns, and so that corporate greed and capitalist’s ravenous appetites can’t hurt them, through socialist government policies, so they don’t collapse in GM(American) style defeat! And, Get on with it! before it is too late! Before we are “Third World” with no means to proceed – we may be too late already! Most American capital has fled our shores to Asia, to build a new powerful counter-society there,with capital earned and having sweat equity here! stolen by the shyster capitalist uber rich from us for a % ROI, no patriotism involved! We were sucked in by contract, and while we planned “Moon Walks” and depended on depleting Arab oil, instead of Solar, Wind, Wave, Tidal, geo-Thermal and super insulation technologies! Will China do perpetual Solar, Wave, Wind tidal, geo thermal and super insulation projects in practical manner, while we foolishly cavort on Mars, prancing and planting flags on indefensible folly for egomaniac reasons alone? while we try to build “Death Beams” in space to aim at ourselves for power? The dreams of nine year olds? Just how energy starved does America get before it grows up and does the right things? Will we make it or revel in our follies til it is too late? Put down the “Bong” America! Time of reckoning? When the next downturn comes! Soon enough!

  • Paul

    This project has been on the shelf since the 70s for a good reason, The cost of the 100s of estimated rocket launched required to ship materials and workers alone makes this whole project not viable. If the only advantage it offers is a never setting sun, it will always be cheaper to build solar plants on the ground.

  • Paul

    This project has been on the shelf since the 70s for a good reason, The cost of the 100s of estimated rocket launched required to ship materials and workers alone makes this whole project not viable. If the only advantage it offers is a never setting sun, it will always be cheaper to build solar plants on the ground.

  • Jim

    Sounds pretty lossy with the beam down energy dissipating with the square of the distance. Better to hang giant mirrors and do all of the transduction on the ground. Isn’t this just another source of global warming though?

  • Jim

    Sounds pretty lossy with the beam down energy dissipating with the square of the distance. Better to hang giant mirrors and do all of the transduction on the ground. Isn’t this just another source of global warming though?

  • C.RRAJASEKHARAN

    I feel that whatever technology we might be looking at,as an alternative source of fuel against fossil fuel,it’s worth attempting.May be solar energy could be the key to this.At global level,the U.N. may constitute a fund for funding research and building proto type equipments and satellites which would enable harvest of solar energy from space with minimal loss in transmission and supply to the electricity grid.This is is the crying need for the whole world particularly in the context of rising fuel prices and rapid depletion in fossil fuel.Along side, on a minuscule level we could seriously attempt harvesting efficiently solar fuel or any other alternative power driven mechanism for our transportation needs etc. It could be attempted on a war footing again by resorting to global funding.Let’s hope and pray that this becomes a reality as soon as possible.

  • I have been up on power sats since 1975 when the just formed L5 Society presented the concept at the Limits to Growth Conference near Huston.

    In those days we were expecting to get around the high cost of lifting power sat parts to orbit by using materials from the moon. Didn’t work out–partly because the price of oil went down for a few decades. Now that it is back up, people are starting to look again.

    If you work through the numbers, you can make dollar a gallon liquid fuels with penny a kWh power. The cost of power is at least 5 times too high. Penny a kWh is physically possible if you can get the cost of lifting power sat parts into GEO down to $100 a kg.

    Does such a low price violate physical laws? No. The cost in energy is only 15 kWh/kg, $1.50 for average consumer power in the US. If we had cable strong enough (and we might get it) a $100 billion moving cable space elevator written off over ten years would get the cost down to $10/kg.

    The best price expected out of rockets is around $500/kg.

    If you look at why, it’s largely the cost of aerospace hardware and the rocket equation which says you can only deliver one part in sixty of the take off mass into GEO with even the best chemical rockets

    Ablative laser propulsion takes a lot of energy, but the performance in terms of propellant is excellent. Lasers don’t give a lot of thrust and launching from earth with a laser is not easy. But if you combine the high thrust of rockets and a really big laser it looks like sub $100/kg to GEO is within our grasp.

    How it would work is a fully reusable 300 ton rocket (less than a Boeing 747) would take off every 15 minutes. It would accelerate straight up to about 2.1k/sec and release a 50 ton vehicle, one half payload and the other half propellant for the laser.

    An 8 GW laser is enough to accelerate the combination to orbital velocity in the 15 minutes before it reenters the earth’s atmosphere. If the laser cost $10 a watt, then it would cost $80 billion. But spread over ten years and a 8/10th of a billion kg per year, the cost is only ten dollars/kg. The rocket stage can deliver this payload to sub orbital for well under $50/kg.

    Considering that the oil bill for the US alone is over $700 billion a year, big as this project is, it might be a bargain.

    Keith Henson

    http://htyp.org/Dollar_a_gallon_gasoline

    hkhenson(at)rogers(dot)com

  • I have been up on power sats since 1975 when the just formed L5 Society presented the concept at the Limits to Growth Conference near Huston.

    In those days we were expecting to get around the high cost of lifting power sat parts to orbit by using materials from the moon. Didn’t work out–partly because the price of oil went down for a few decades. Now that it is back up, people are starting to look again.

    If you work through the numbers, you can make dollar a gallon liquid fuels with penny a kWh power. The cost of power is at least 5 times too high. Penny a kWh is physically possible if you can get the cost of lifting power sat parts into GEO down to $100 a kg.

    Does such a low price violate physical laws? No. The cost in energy is only 15 kWh/kg, $1.50 for average consumer power in the US. If we had cable strong enough (and we might get it) a $100 billion moving cable space elevator written off over ten years would get the cost down to $10/kg.

    The best price expected out of rockets is around $500/kg.

    If you look at why, it’s largely the cost of aerospace hardware and the rocket equation which says you can only deliver one part in sixty of the take off mass into GEO with even the best chemical rockets

    Ablative laser propulsion takes a lot of energy, but the performance in terms of propellant is excellent. Lasers don’t give a lot of thrust and launching from earth with a laser is not easy. But if you combine the high thrust of rockets and a really big laser it looks like sub $100/kg to GEO is within our grasp.

    How it would work is a fully reusable 300 ton rocket (less than a Boeing 747) would take off every 15 minutes. It would accelerate straight up to about 2.1k/sec and release a 50 ton vehicle, one half payload and the other half propellant for the laser.

    An 8 GW laser is enough to accelerate the combination to orbital velocity in the 15 minutes before it reenters the earth’s atmosphere. If the laser cost $10 a watt, then it would cost $80 billion. But spread over ten years and a 8/10th of a billion kg per year, the cost is only ten dollars/kg. The rocket stage can deliver this payload to sub orbital for well under $50/kg.

    Considering that the oil bill for the US alone is over $700 billion a year, big as this project is, it might be a bargain.

    Keith Henson

    http://htyp.org/Dollar_a_gallon_gasoline

    hkhenson(at)rogers(dot)com

  • mthomas

    Space-Based Microwave Power is the way to go.

    http://www.p2pnet.net/story/16477

  • mthomas

    Space-Based Microwave Power is the way to go.

    http://www.p2pnet.net/story/16477

  • Sam

    Are there any pros/cons to capturing sunlight from above the Earth’s atmosphere? Does the atmosphere change the light in a positive or negative way, to make it more or less powerful?

    Also, a list of points was made by “still_required”. To your points about losing power in light transfer over such a great distance – we should keep in mind that we could create a light collection grid the size of Africa (or maybe Rhode Island) in space if we wanted to. No limit on real-estate to build on!

  • Sam

    Are there any pros/cons to capturing sunlight from above the Earth’s atmosphere? Does the atmosphere change the light in a positive or negative way, to make it more or less powerful?

    Also, a list of points was made by “still_required”. To your points about losing power in light transfer over such a great distance – we should keep in mind that we could create a light collection grid the size of Africa (or maybe Rhode Island) in space if we wanted to. No limit on real-estate to build on!

  • Maury Markowitz

    This stupid idea just never goes away.

    Fact 1: solar cells are MORE EFFICIENT on Earth than in space.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell

    Estimate 2: solar panel installs on Earth are around $9 per Watt installed. (personal experience)

    Fact 3: solar panels are about 20 Watts per pound.

    http://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=735164&id=3&qs=No%3D40%26Ne%3D35%26Ns%3DPublicationYear%257C0%26N%3D4294967096%2B4294966789

    Fact 4: price-per-pound to GEO orbit is around $10,000 or more.

    http://www.futron.com/pdf/resource_center/white_papers/FutronLaunchCostWP.pdf

    Conclusion 1: excluding EVERYTHING else,looking at JUST the cost of transportation means, SPS’s will generate electricity at $500 per Watt (10000/20) absolute minimum.

    Conclusion 2: in order to be competitive, SPSs will need to use transportation systems that are at least two orders of magnitude cheaper. In 50 years of space flight, prices continue to go UP, not down.

    Conclusion 3: duh!

    Maury

  • Maury Markowitz

    This stupid idea just never goes away.

    Fact 1: solar cells are MORE EFFICIENT on Earth than in space.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell

    Estimate 2: solar panel installs on Earth are around $9 per Watt installed. (personal experience)

    Fact 3: solar panels are about 20 Watts per pound.

    http://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=735164&id=3&qs=No%3D40%26Ne%3D35%26Ns%3DPublicationYear%257C0%26N%3D4294967096%2B4294966789

    Fact 4: price-per-pound to GEO orbit is around $10,000 or more.

    http://www.futron.com/pdf/resource_center/white_papers/FutronLaunchCostWP.pdf

    Conclusion 1: excluding EVERYTHING else,looking at JUST the cost of transportation means, SPS’s will generate electricity at $500 per Watt (10000/20) absolute minimum.

    Conclusion 2: in order to be competitive, SPSs will need to use transportation systems that are at least two orders of magnitude cheaper. In 50 years of space flight, prices continue to go UP, not down.

    Conclusion 3: duh!

    Maury

  • Arun Dudani

    Umm… while the idea is good, how long before it manifests itself as a dangerous problem?

    Think, satellites beaming down raw energy… what if there’s a misalignment or some error.. and that height, few microdegrees off the target are enough to fry the unprepared area.

    Done delibrately… controlling entity has power to fry the whole city in minutes without the apparent side effects of nuclear explosion. How long before this leads to some kind of dangerous arms race, much worse than cold war – it will be, because only fear with nukes is that the effect spreads beyond targetted area – and with big countries – they have still enough left to hit back and assured mutual destruction.

    With this technology, if misused, that is gone – 2-3 satellites working together – outputting gigawatts of energy per square inch, can cover the entire US in matter of less than an hour.

    Just my penny for the deliberate misuse.. I hope nasa has already thought about a part of atmosphere become superheated (as this energy screams down to receivers) and affect it will have on wind currents and thus global climate

  • Arun Dudani

    Umm… while the idea is good, how long before it manifests itself as a dangerous problem?

    Think, satellites beaming down raw energy… what if there’s a misalignment or some error.. and that height, few microdegrees off the target are enough to fry the unprepared area.

    Done delibrately… controlling entity has power to fry the whole city in minutes without the apparent side effects of nuclear explosion. How long before this leads to some kind of dangerous arms race, much worse than cold war – it will be, because only fear with nukes is that the effect spreads beyond targetted area – and with big countries – they have still enough left to hit back and assured mutual destruction.

    With this technology, if misused, that is gone – 2-3 satellites working together – outputting gigawatts of energy per square inch, can cover the entire US in matter of less than an hour.

    Just my penny for the deliberate misuse.. I hope nasa has already thought about a part of atmosphere become superheated (as this energy screams down to receivers) and affect it will have on wind currents and thus global climate

  • John Smith

    All we need now is a orbital elevator then we can build solar power generation system orbiting earth and watch as other nation destroy themselves for the little remaining energy source on earth.

    Oh wait … it’s called Gundam the Anime series.

    I call dibbs on Gundam Exia … that right Gundam.

    http://www.gundamofficial.com/index2.html

  • John Smith

    All we need now is a orbital elevator then we can build solar power generation system orbiting earth and watch as other nation destroy themselves for the little remaining energy source on earth.

    Oh wait … it’s called Gundam the Anime series.

    I call dibbs on Gundam Exia … that right Gundam.

    http://www.gundamofficial.com/index2.html

  • Paraphrase:

    Massive solar collecting satellites avoid negatives of ground based solar collectors and beam the massive amounts of energy to Earth. Costs a lot to do, saves a lot in the long term. Big countries are interested, no one wants to pay for it.

    My opinion:

    Also like the article says, this is not a new idea. And plenty of peons like myself have also been thinking about it for years. I just wish they’d create a small proof of concept to really encourage the money holders. Once the thing is in orbit it would require little to no maintenance. Free power? That you can charge for? The billionaires of the world will eat that shit up.

  • Paraphrase:

    Massive solar collecting satellites avoid negatives of ground based solar collectors and beam the massive amounts of energy to Earth. Costs a lot to do, saves a lot in the long term. Big countries are interested, no one wants to pay for it.

    My opinion:

    Also like the article says, this is not a new idea. And plenty of peons like myself have also been thinking about it for years. I just wish they’d create a small proof of concept to really encourage the money holders. Once the thing is in orbit it would require little to no maintenance. Free power? That you can charge for? The billionaires of the world will eat that shit up.

  • John

    One year of the Iraq war could go a long way toward paying for getting such a system up and running.

  • John

    One year of the Iraq war could go a long way toward paying for getting such a system up and running.

  • JIm Jones

    Hey, if it means spending less hard earned money at the gas pump then I am ALL for it!

    JT

    http://www.FireMe.To/udi

  • JIm Jones

    Hey, if it means spending less hard earned money at the gas pump then I am ALL for it!

    JT

    http://www.FireMe.To/udi

  • I want to believe this, I hope it’s true. Believe or Doubt[VOTE]: http://snurl.com/37ahn [www_thriveorfail_com]

  • I want to believe this, I hope it’s true. Believe or Doubt[VOTE]: http://snurl.com/37ahn [www_thriveorfail_com]

  • Mark

    The space elevator would solve the transmission problems.

  • Mark

    The space elevator would solve the transmission problems.

  • Sherry

    Well the assessment from Oct 07 is here:

    http://www.nss.org/settlement/ssp/library/nsso.htm Doesn’t look as crazy as it sounds. The folks working on this are not looking at death beams and such (that’s the military) lots of the people working on this never stopped after the 70’s when it was batted around before. They are actually people who believe in this kind of thing and have wanted to do it just because it would be applying science to make the world a better place. Believe it or not that’s the actual goal of many who go into the fields of science.

  • Sherry

    Well the assessment from Oct 07 is here:

    http://www.nss.org/settlement/ssp/library/nsso.htm Doesn’t look as crazy as it sounds. The folks working on this are not looking at death beams and such (that’s the military) lots of the people working on this never stopped after the 70’s when it was batted around before. They are actually people who believe in this kind of thing and have wanted to do it just because it would be applying science to make the world a better place. Believe it or not that’s the actual goal of many who go into the fields of science.

  • James

    They say it will work 24hrs a day cos it’s above the clouds; what if it’s cloudy where you’re trying to beam it to?

  • James

    They say it will work 24hrs a day cos it’s above the clouds; what if it’s cloudy where you’re trying to beam it to?

  • still_required

    This has long been a (really wild) solution looking for a problem. A list of issues (in no particular order)

    1) It is really hard to get into high earth orbit, and you don’t want to do this in LEO… cause if you collect significant energy in LEO, then what isn’t it reaching?

    2) Space solar power collectors are not particularly efficient. The best is <30%

    3) Power falls off with the square of the distance that you have to transmit it… so the higher you put the collectors, the less proportional energy you get.

    4) How do you get it down without cooking what’s under it? Even tightly focused beams spread a bit over that range, so you are going to be irradiating much more than just the ground collector.

    5) Once you get it down, you have to re-convert it to electrical energy… at no more than 50% efficiency.

    6) Sats, even geostationary ones, wander in ground track… this is because you can’t get perfect 0 degree inclination…. so your power downlink is going to have to track the ground collector.

    7) if you try to do it below GEO, then your ground track covers a significant percentage of the earth’s surface… and you are passing in and out of earth shadow, with all sorts of associated heat transfer problems.

    8) if you try to not go so low (e.g. MEO), then you are sitting right in the middle of the Van Allen belts.. a really ugly radiation environment.

    We could do much better with large scale ground based solar collection in the desert regions.

  • still_required

    This has long been a (really wild) solution looking for a problem. A list of issues (in no particular order)

    1) It is really hard to get into high earth orbit, and you don’t want to do this in LEO… cause if you collect significant energy in LEO, then what isn’t it reaching?

    2) Space solar power collectors are not particularly efficient. The best is <30%

    3) Power falls off with the square of the distance that you have to transmit it… so the higher you put the collectors, the less proportional energy you get.

    4) How do you get it down without cooking what’s under it? Even tightly focused beams spread a bit over that range, so you are going to be irradiating much more than just the ground collector.

    5) Once you get it down, you have to re-convert it to electrical energy… at no more than 50% efficiency.

    6) Sats, even geostationary ones, wander in ground track… this is because you can’t get perfect 0 degree inclination…. so your power downlink is going to have to track the ground collector.

    7) if you try to do it below GEO, then your ground track covers a significant percentage of the earth’s surface… and you are passing in and out of earth shadow, with all sorts of associated heat transfer problems.

    8) if you try to not go so low (e.g. MEO), then you are sitting right in the middle of the Van Allen belts.. a really ugly radiation environment.

    We could do much better with large scale ground based solar collection in the desert regions.

  • Pingback: nerdd.net | news and opinion()

  • I am with Wayne on this one. The first and most important hurdle is transmitting the power. Until we can show wireless transmission of significant quantities of electrical power here on Earth, there is no reason at all to spend money researching how to collect the power in space.

    Terrestrial experimentation is far less costly. Without knowledge of how to move the power without wires, something that would be valuable in its own right, anything involving collecting the energy in space would be a waste of time and resources.

  • I am with Wayne on this one. The first and most important hurdle is transmitting the power. Until we can show wireless transmission of significant quantities of electrical power here on Earth, there is no reason at all to spend money researching how to collect the power in space.

    Terrestrial experimentation is far less costly. Without knowledge of how to move the power without wires, something that would be valuable in its own right, anything involving collecting the energy in space would be a waste of time and resources.

  • required

    Doesn’t all solar power come from outer space? DOH!

    Oh, maybe the article is talking about solar collectors in orbit which can beam death rays at the ground? Excuse, me, not death rays, microwave power beams, as if there were any difference.

  • required

    Doesn’t all solar power come from outer space? DOH!

    Oh, maybe the article is talking about solar collectors in orbit which can beam death rays at the ground? Excuse, me, not death rays, microwave power beams, as if there were any difference.

  • This is a topic I first wrote about back in June 2007.

    We have many of the technologies in place to make this work.

    The principle problem isn’t getting the equipment into space, but getting the energy back down.

    There’s been the first successful trials of transmitting electricity through the air; albeit a technology at its very early stages…

  • This is a topic I first wrote about back in June 2007.

    We have many of the technologies in place to make this work.

    The principle problem isn’t getting the equipment into space, but getting the energy back down.

    There’s been the first successful trials of transmitting electricity through the air; albeit a technology at its very early stages…

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