Report Urges U.S. to Pursue Space-Based Solar Power
This solar power satellite design features sets of lightweight, inflatable fresnel reflectors to focus the Sun's energy on small arrays of high-efficiency photovoltaic cells.
CREDIT: NASA artwork by Pat Rawlings/SAIC.
WASHINGTON – A
Pentagon-chartered report urges the
Space-based solar power, according
to the report, has the potential to help the
The report, "Space-Based Solar Power as an Opportunity for Strategic Security," was undertaken by the Pentagon's National Security Space Office this spring as a collaborative effort that relied heavily on Internet discussions by more than 170 scientific, legal, and business experts around the world. The Space Frontier Foundation, an activist organization normally critical of government-led space programs, hosted the website used to collect input for the report.
Speaking at a press conference held
here Oct. 10 to unveil the report, U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Paul Damphousse of the National Space Security Space Office said
the six-month study, while "done on the cheap," produced some very
positive findings about the feasibility of space-based solar power and its potential to strengthen
"One of the major findings was
that space-based solar power does present strategic opportunity for us in the
21st century," Damphousse said. "It can
Specifically, the report calls for the U.S. government to underwrite the development of space-based solar power by funding a progressively bigger and more expensive technology demonstrations that would culminate with building a platform in geosynchronous orbit bigger than the international space station and capable of beaming 5-10 megawatts of power to a receiving station on the ground.
Nearer term, the
Aside from its potential to defuse
future energy wars and mitigate global warming, Damphousse
said beaming power down from space could also enable the
As the report puts it, "beamed energy from space in quantities greater than 5 megawatts has the potential to be a disruptive game changer on the battlefield. [Space-based solar power] and its enabling wireless power transmission technology could facilitate extremely flexible 'energy on demand' for combat units and installations across and entire theater, while significantly reducing dependence on over-land fuel deliveries."
The Pentagon would, however, be a
willing early adopter of the new technology, Damphousse
said, and provide a potentially robust ma
"While challenges do remain and the business case does not necessarily close at this time from a financial sense, space-based solar power is closer than ever," he said. "We are the day after next from being able to actually do this."
Damphousse, however, cautioned that the private
sector will not invest in space-based solar power until the
"Demonstrations are key here," he said. "If we can demonstrate this, the business case will close rapidly."
Charles Miller, one of the Space Frontier Foundation's directors, agreed public funding is vital to getting space-based solar power off the ground. Miller told reporters here that the space-based solar power industry could take off within 10 years if the White House and Congress embrace the report's recommendations by funding a robust demonstration program and provide the same kind of incentives it offers the nuclear power industry.
The Pentagon's interest is another important
factor. Military officials involved in the report calculate that the
"The biggest issue with previous studies is they were trying to get five or ten cents per kilowatt hour, so when you have a near term customer who's potentially willing to pay much more for power, it's much easier to close the business case," Miller said.
NASA first studied space-based solar
power in the 1970s, concluding then that the concept was technically feasible
but not economically viable. Cost estimates produced at the time estimated the
Advances in computing, robotics, solar cell efficiency, and other technologies helped drive that estimate down by the time NASA took a fresh look at space-based solar power in the mid-1990s, Mankins said, but still not enough justify the upfront expense of such an undertaking at a time when oil was going for $15 a barrel.
With oil currently trading today as high as $80 a barrel and the U.S. military paying dearly to keep kerosene-powered generators humming in an oil-rich region like Iraq, the economics have change significantly since NASA pulled the plug on space-based solar power research in around 2002.
On the technical front, solar cell efficiency has improved faster than expected. Ten years ago, when solar cells were topping out around 15 percent efficiency, experts predicted that 25 percent efficiency would not be achieved until close to 2020, Mankins said, yet Sylmar, Calif.-based Spectrolab – a Boeing subsidiary – last year unveiled an advanced solar cell with a 40.7 percent conversion efficiency.
One critical area that has not made many advances since the 1990s or even the 1970s is the cost of launch. Mankins said commercially-viable space-based solar power platforms will only become feasible with the kind of dramatically cheaper launch costs promised by fully reusable launch vehicles flying dozens of times a year.
"If somebody tries to sell you stock in a space solar power company today saying we are going to start building immediately, you should probably call your broker and not take that at face value," Mankins said. "There's a lot of challenges that need to be overcome."
Mankins said the space station could be used to host some early technology validation demonstrations, from testing appropriate materials to tapping into the station's solar-powered electrical grid to transmit a low level of energy back to Earth. Worthwhile component tests could be accomplished for "a few million" dollars, Mankins estimated, while a space station-based power-beaming experiment would cost "tens of millions" of dollars.
Placing a free-flying space-based solar power demonstrator in low-Earth orbit, he said, would cost $500 million to $1 billion. A geosynchronous system capable of transmitting a sustained 5-10 megawatts of power down to the ground would cost around $10 billion, he said, and provide enough electricity for a military base. Commercial platforms, likewise, would be very expensive to build.
"These things are not going to be small or cheap," Mankins said. "It's not like buying a jetliner. It's going to be like buying the Hoover Dam."
While the upfront costs are steep, Mankins and others said space-based solar power's potential to meet the world's future energy needs is huge.
According to the report, "a single kilometer-wide band of geosynchronous earth orbit experiences enough solar flux in one year to nearly equal the amount of energy contained within all known recoverable conventional oil reserves on Earth today."
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