Worldwide Future Energy Will Come From Space - Taylor Dinerman
As electricity shortages and blackouts become increasingly common, the need for a new, clean and inexhaustible source of energy is more urgent than ever. Global demand for electricity is rapidly expanding particularly in India and China. In the US we should expect that as more people switch to electric cars, and as new devices such as household and medical robots become more and more common, our current power supply will prove to be inadequate.
There are a few alternatives available, but they have their drawbacks. Wind power and terrestrial solar energy are the environmentalist’s preferred alternatives. As small scale supplements to today’s basic coal, gas and nuclear base-load generators, solar has been shown to be marginally useful and wind turbines more problematic. If either were to be used on a large scale, they would require a revolution in electrical storage. Consequently, that means either giant engineering projects similar in size and expense to the Hoover Dam or a technological or scientific breakthrough, neither of which show any sign of happening soon.
The US government has been in love with ‘alternative’ technologies since the 1970s shown by the billions of taxpayer dollars that have been pumped into development. Indeed there has been progress, but the fact remains that the cost of these systems remains high and the output low. For some applications terrestrial solar may be useful in the near term. Desalination, for example, is a perfect use for this technology since there is no requirement for reliable twenty four hour a day operations.
However, the cost of modifying the grid to accept the intermittent power generated by these methods, particularly wind power, is out of proportion to the benefits they ultimately deliver; not to mention the need to provide for 100% backup from traditional generating sources such as coal, natural gas or nuclear. The obstacles that generating firms have to overcome in order to build such plants are amazing and will inevitably lead to blackouts, radical spikes in electricity prices or both.
In spite of the obstacles, creating new sources of electricity is fairly simple compared to the far greater geopolitical challenge of finding an effective substitute for liquid fuels. Replacing oil as the world’s main transportation fuel is by far the most urgent need facing our global civilization. Simply diverting crops such as corn to making ethanol is not going to work. Subsidized ethanol in today’s world diverts corn away from the food business and raises prices for everything from hamburgers to pizza. Bioengineering organisms such as algae to produce liquid fuel as Exxon hopes to do may be a better answer, but doing so economically will require lots of low cost energy.
The idea of Space Solar Power was conceptualized in 1968 by Peter Glaser. Glaser foresaw harvesting solar energy directly from the sun and transmitting it to receivers on Earth. In space there is no atmosphere or day/night cycle to get in the way of round-the-clock operations. Once the power is collected by photovoltaic cells, it can then be beamed down either using radio frequency (microwave) or optics (lasers) and can be fed into the electrical grid without the need for complex backup systems.
The technology is proven. The most critical elements needed now are capital, a number of cutting edge engineers and a suitable political climate. Of course, building a massive solar power array in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) 22.000 miles above the Earth is going to be an amazing feat of human technology, but what one must realize, is that we have already shown we can build a habitat in orbit as the International Space Station is far more complex than a Solar Power Satellite (SPS).
Improving the efficiency of the space to Earth transmitters is probably the single greatest technical obstacle. Current systems have achieved efficiencies of around 10% but there is no inherent reason why, with proper funding and talent, a level of 50% or better cannot be reached. Keeping the beam on target is not a problem. The same technology used by communications satellites for what is termed ‘narrowcasting’ can be adapted for energy beaming.
Another major barrier is the relatively high cost of launching payloads into orbit. As of now the price varies between $8000 to as much as $12,000 per pound to launch into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which is reckoned to be as low as 200 and as high as 5000 kilometres above the Earth. To get to Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) would be 10 to 20% more expensive. A number of launchers are now in development which will reduce this; most notable is the SpaceX Falcon 9 that has just made its first successful flight. If the space industry is allowed to build a new heavy lift rocket, such as the Ares V, capable of sending more the 120 tons into orbit the price per pound of payload could decrease dramatically. Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLV’s) and material and flight control technology improvements will be the key to making access to space easier.
Some nations, such as India and Japan, have governments that have recognized the potential of SSP. US leaders, however, have never been able to bring themselves to embrace the technology. Over the years, Congress has ordered a number of studies and while there are more than a few hard core supporters on Capitol Hill, the executive branch has never been able to get behind the idea. “NASA doesn’t do energy and the Department of Energy doesn’t do space” is a common cliché touted amongst Space Energy professionals exemplifying the U.S. Government’s unfortunate inability to have accountability amongst its organizations.
Recently, it was reported that the Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was asked about SSP during a trip to India where former President Dr. Abdul Kalam is a strong supporter of the idea. Secretary Chu, a distinguished and accomplished academic responded negatively, as SSP is so far outside his usual domain. Additionally, the US Energy Department’s senior professional staff has long seen SSP as a competitor with nuclear fusion - the organization’s preferred answer to the future of very large energy demand.
Generally, most ‘experts’ are conservatives within their own field. A case in point is when Admiral William Leahy, President Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff, told him that the atomic bomb would never work adding, “I speak as an expert in explosives.” History shows that very few political leaders combine a grasp of technological innovation even when combined with technological facts. To their credit, Churchill and Eisenhower demonstrated some acceptance toward technological innovation, though neither record was perfect. More recently, Al Gore and Newt Gingrich attempted to show that they could be technologically savvy, but with mixed results at best. One would hope that an American politician with the requisite combination of vision, clout and guts will commit to supporting SSP, but no one should count on it. In the near future, it will be entrepreneurs who will inevitably show the way.
In time, Space Solar Power will become less and less expensive as costs diminish. SSP will certainly become a more economically viable alternative as the world’s access to power generation transforms from natural gas and other liquid fuels. It is often asserted that the problem of liquid fuel and the problem of electrical generation are totally separate. Yet, as technologies like plug-in hybrid vehicles begin to proliferate, this argument will crumble. Low cost, abundant and clean electricity will make it profitable to develop and sell cars that, in one form or another, use this type of energy.
Once a cutting-edge technology like Space Solar Power is in place amongst other existing renewable technologies, it will be possible to replace a large proportion and hopefully all imported oil with these alternatives. As long as shortages of electrical power threaten looming energy wars and the world’s economy, we must actively seek out innovative technologies that will reverse this trend expeditiously. Plentiful energy from space has the potential to change this equation.