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Friday, October 19, 2007

All the Energy We Could Ever Need? Space-Based Solar Power Looking Better

Published by the Pentagon's National Security Space Office, the report says the US should demonstrate the technology by building a pilot "space-based solar power" station, big enough to continuously beam up to 10 megawatts of power to the ground, in the next decade.

The good news? Beaming all the solar energy we could ever need down to Earth from space appears more feasible than ever before. The bad news? It's going to take a lot of money and political will to get there.

While the idea of sending giant solar panels into orbit around the Earth is nothing new - the idea has been kicked around with varying degrees of seriousness since the '60s and 70s - changing times have made the concept a lot more feasible today, according to a study released Oct. 10 by the National Security Space Office (NSSO). Fossil fuels are a lot more expensive, and getting harder to access, than they were in past decades. And technology advances are making possible today projects that were all but inconceivable in years past.

"The magnitude of the looming energy and environmental problems is significant enough to warrant consideration of all options, to include revisiting a concept called Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) first invented in the United States almost 40 years ago," the report's executive summary states.

Oil prices have jumped from $15/barrel to now $80/barrel in less than a decade. In addition to the emergence of global concerns over climate change, American and allied energy source security is now under threat from actors that seek to destabilize or control global energy markets as well as increased energy demand competition by emerging global economies.

By collecting solar energy before it passes through the Earth's atmosphere, losing much of its power, a space-based solar power could provide the planet with all the energy it needs and then some, the NSSO report said. The output of a single one-kilometer-wide band of solar panels at geosynchronous orbit would equal the energy in all the world's remaining recoverable oil: an esimated 1.28 trillion barrels.

Because it didn't have the time or funds to study the feasibility of space-based solar power the traditional way, the NSSO's Advanced Concepts Office (known as "Dreamworks") developed its report through a unique strategy: an open-source, Internet-based forum inviting worldwide experts in the field to collaborate online. More than 170 contributors joined into the discussion, with the mission to answer one question:

Can the United States and partners enable the development and deployment of a space-based solar power system within the first half of the 21st Century such that if constructed could provide affordable, clean, safe, reliable, sustainable, and expandable energy for its consumers?

Their answer, delivered in the form of the Oct. 10 report: it's possible, but a lot remains to be done.

The study group ended up making four major recommendations. First, it said, the U.S. government should move to resolve the remaining unknowns regarding space-based solar power and act effectively to allow for the technology's development. Second, the government should also reduce as much as possible the technical risks faced by businesses working on the technology. Third, the government should set up the environment - policy, regulatory and legal - needed to develop space-based solar power. And, fourth, the U.S. should commit to becoming an early demonstrator, adopter and customer of space-based solar power and set up incentives for the technology's development.

"Considering the development timescales that are involved, and the exponential growth of population and resource pressures within that same strategic period, it is imperative that this work for 'drilling up' vs. drilling down for energy security begins immediately," the NSSO report stated.

If it could be done, space-based solar power would have incredible potential, the NSSO said: It could solve our energy problems, deliver "energy on demand" for troops in the field, provide a fast and sustainable source of energy during humanitarian disasters, and reduce the risk of future conflict over dwindling or risky energy supplies.

Considering that, over the past 30 years, both NASA and the Department of Energy have invested a meager $80 million in space-based solar power research (compared to $21 billion over the last half-century for nuclear fusion - which still remains out of reach as a feasible power source), maybe it's time to directing our research energies - and dollars - upward

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