Space-Based Solar Power: Hope Gets Hyped?

By Richard Mains, Posted 04/29/09

4 comments


Space-Based Solar Satellite If you haven't heard about the agreement between the Solaren company to provide space-based solar power (SBSP) to Pacific Gas & Electric beginning about 2016, and the utility's guaranteed purchase of it for 15 years, you may have just returned from a trip deep into the Amazon.  PG&E notes in a post on their Next100 blog titled "Solaren: The Media and Pundits Weigh In" , that within two weeks of the agreement it was "reported, analyzed, debated, praised and ridiculed on more than 26,000 web sites".  Now, that's buzz!

The blog post profiles a sampling of links to this tidal wave including a good Scientific American article with SBSP background, current status and references to a Solaren patent that gives some clues as to how they expect to pull this off.  Their short answer is to make the solar satellite smaller and lighter and as the Soleren CEO indicates, to attract “billions of dollars” in funding.  Obviously, much more research, development and feasibility testing will be needed to open the door to such a cash flow.  But hey, three cheers to Solaren and PG&E for their optimism, however, the utility is clear that they've assumed no risk. 

As most agree, the "holy grail" for the emergence of many new space commerce market sectors, including SBSP, is cheaper, more reliable and predictable access to space.  The “personal spaceflight” market whose customers will need to have deep pockets and be plentiful is seen as a critical near-term driver for this improved access.  Hopefully, some of these adventuresome customers will have the vision to become future space entrepreneurs – if not part of their initial motivation, then after experiencing a new business development “Overview Effect”. 

Let’s assume that space access of the kind that’s needed does evolve which benefits industry, space agencies, military surveillance applications, a wide range of Earth applications, and new public “space consumers” – all key stakeholders and sectors.   And let’s assume that Solaren and many other space-based solar energy collaborators implement their near-limitless clean power dream for the world.  What might result? 

Would the energy benefits be able to flow beyond the developed world?
    

Would the concentration of SBSP resources make the world vulnerable to an accident-induced “mother” of all blackouts?
 

Would we still need the many alternative energy sources proposed for development on the ground including solar, wind, wave, geothermal, biofuel, and others? 

I have a strong feeling that near and long-term global needs will require a range of alternative energy solutions based on factors that will also change over time.  They will likely include investment and development costs, overall system operation costs, acceptable risks, regional and culture-specific requirements, and of course technical sustainability challenges.  The complex global energy economy of today will need to be extended and adapted to the use of these new alternative technologies.  The cultural and social adaptations required to do this will likely be as challenging as the technical ones.  The classic issue of devising and applying “appropriate technology” regionally is still very real and one reason why we need to have teams of well-educated, innovative youth involved, across the globe.  That said, I am greatly encouraged when I read about pilot studies in SBSP, both completed and proposed, since some (see the Editor's Pick) who've analyzed global energy needs, think it will be essential. 

Comments

A Public-Private Space-Based Solar Power Initiative?

From: Richard Mains, 06/07/09

Brachhausen and Huntsman see the major potential for Space-based Solar Power (SBSP) and the critical need for related near-term demo testbeds, space-based business models, and leadership. Huntsman profiles some testbed options that could provide more concept validation, but he is also looking for a path to real progress. The key 2007 DoD-sponsored “SBSP Interim Assessment” report (http://www.acq.osd.mil/nsso/solar/SBSPInterimAssesment0.1.pdf) was assessed by Charles Miller at a high-profile press conference (http://www.nss.org/news/releases/SSP5miller.mp3) in 2007. He provided insights into how demos, business models and leadership could coalesce for action. Miller’s background in commercial space, space advocacy and now as Sr. Advisor to NASA for Commercial Space, provides him solid experience and strong credibility on these topics. He thinks there should be a national SBSP Initative for 10-15 years to validate technology options and especially to help close the business case pursued via a public-private partnership. The key to that is found in the DoD report where it is acknowledged that current oversees military costs for transport, security, and conversion of fuel into electricity costs 10 times more than U.S. domestic electricity and thus they could be an initial preferred customer at above current domestic power rates. Also the US has major national security and international stability issues with energy projected to increasingly be the source of conflicts - we need a major gobal non-carbon alternative. I look forward to learning more about successful public-private partnerships at the Federal-Business levels as examples of how to do this. Maybe the Commercial Transportation Orbital Services (COTS) partnership will show the way.

ISS as Space-Based Solar Power Testbed

From: Dave Huntsman, 06/05/09

That stars, as it were, have started to come in to a soft alignment to encourage use of ISS as the first test site for a space power beaming demo; what is lacking is the leadership to take it up and lead the charge. Space-based solar power needs a demonstration to be considered something serious that should be evaluated; something real that a possible premium power user, such as the DOD/Department of Defense, could then evaluate. ISS is the largest solar farm ever put into orbit; and, it's looking for customers to use it! Possible demo experiments using ISS as the base from which to beam power include: 1. Powering a Free-flyer: Mounting a transmitter on the Japanese exposed facility on ISS, and a receiving system on the HTV/H-2 Transfer Vehicle, could allow that resupply ship, after it's job is done and it's pulled away from ISS, power could be beamed to the H2 while it did orbital maneuvers for awhile. Providing electric power to the HTV, possibly even powering an attached ion thruster, would be an excellent space-to-space power beaming demo that many - from DOD, to NASA, to other nations - could be interested in. 2. ISS-to-Ground: Air Force. The Air Force Research Laboratory is already funding a study of where a rectenna (receiving antenna) might be located to receive and rectify any power beamed down in a demo; such as, at an Air Force Base. If successful, it could give the rest of the DOD, including such as the Marines, the data they need to determine whether a dedicated demo satellite could be launched to evaluate powering forward bases. Remember: over 50% of our soldiers and Marines that have died in Iraq, have died either protecting energy, or protecting the transport of energy. This is not a trivial issue. 3. A successful ISS-to-Air Force Base demo could conceivably be transferred to the private sector, such as Solaren, the startup that already has an agreement with PG&E to purchase space-based solar power. True, Solaren is thinking of its own system; but they would be likely to be interested in any early demo that could test actually feeding power into the grid. Any of the above ideas - or others, such as power beaming to a cheap nanosat built to test the concept - is something that could be done in the next couple of years, not the next dozen. And there is even a possible funding source outside of the space arena: ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, has, under Secretary Chu, been funded for the very first time. The first 'solicitation' had a due date for responses of three days ago; to my knowledge, there was no such proposal to get funding for using ISS. But it won't be the last opportunity. The stars are in soft alignment; but it requires visionary leadership to bring them into hard alignment. Imagine, a true solar power beaming demo, from space to the ground and into the grid - it could happen, literally, in just 3 or so years, with honest effort and leadership.

Space-Based Solar a Chance to Build Hope

From: Eric Brachhausen, 05/06/09

From a planetary stewardship standpoint, space-based solar sounds very attractive. Precisely because it is so grand an idea, we need to rethink the entrenched business models for bringing such systems into being, and distributing the power from them. The knee-jerk reaction is to “let the market figure it all out.” However, present terrestrial power sources are part of a bigger pattern of deploying market solutions to meet universal basic human needs. Witness health care, housing, and food production, for example, where market solutions have produced some stunning successes, but have left enormous, painful gaps in coverage and access across the globe. Can’t we do more than just relocate a key source of our present inequities from terra firma into orbit? Said another way, space-based power and terrestrial distribution systems may become the new Boardwalk and Park Place of a 21st century “Monopoly Board.” If that happens, the rest of us will be paying a lot more than $200 every time we pass “Go.” That having been said, let’s explore space-based solar power. I hope it works for the sake of future generations. At the same time, let’s have a serious dialog up front about who will own it, and how the power it produces can build hope for the disadvantaged.

Space-based Solar Power

From: Joan Vernikos, 05/02/09

Non-oil energy is the 21st century's Gold Rush. As with any other venture with high monetary return potential, real physical and man-made obstacles must be recognized and overcome. Dream, need and hunger are great motivators as are instincts to be first, be in control with exclusivity. This project is exactly the sort of 'venture' that can stimulate the thrill-seekers, raise the needed resources and take the risks, especially at a time when little positive seems to be happening. This is not about lowering your and my utility bill. It is about stirring the juices. And if those juices keep flowing and the economy stays sick for a while, it has a good chance of succeeding.

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