Power From Space: Its Time Has Come

Last week, we saw a significant policy shift on greenhouse gas emissions when President Bush called for a halt in the growth of U.S. emissions by 2025 and urged other major polluting nations to develop national goals to address climate change. On the same day, South Korea’s president started a visit to the U.S. to make a pitch to companies and investors to assist the country’s desire to become an energy producer following the discovery of deposits of gas hydrates — crystalline solids of methane and water molecules — off its coast last year. The country’s aspirations are understandable. They would, however, add to emissions from methane released during extraction. Gas hydrates have also been found in large quantities off the coasts of China, India, and Taiwan, all of which have increasing energy demands.

Against this backdrop, it is time we gave serious consideration to energy from space. It is an old idea and most of the information below is widely available from NASA research. It was initiated after the oil embargo of the mid-1970’s when NASA, working with the DOE, began to study alternative energy sources to lessen dependence on foreign oil. Proposed space solar power (SSP) systems consisting of photovoltaic (PV) arrays and mirrors, placed in a geostationary Earth orbit where unaffected by cloud cover, atmospheric dust, or by the Earth’s day-night cycle, would receive eight times as much sunlight as they would on Earth’s surface. The energy could be converted and beamed to Earth.

PV technology has improved considerably since this idea was developed adding to the argument that this source of energy should be revisited. In addition, the economics of the cost of energy have changed. According to Dr. Neville Marzwell and his colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Lab, an SSP system could generate energy at a cost including cost of construction of 60 to 80 cents per kilowatt-hour at the outset. He believes that “in 15 to 25 years we can lower that cost to 7 to 10 cents per kWh.” The average cost of residential electricity was 9.86 cents per kWh in the U.S. in 2006.

Admittedly, there are formidable challenges in making this work. However, historically, we have a great record in making technological advances even though our social and political advances have not been so stellar. We should examine SSP, at the highest levels, nationally and internationally, because space solar power offers us energy from an unending source with no emissions and very little environmental impact. Furthermore, our current “solution” of switching to bio fuels is increasing hunger around the world evidenced by riots for food in the developing countries, and, the international carbon-credit market, created as part of the Kyoto Protocol, seems to be doing more for padding middlemen such as EcoSecurities whose founder is quoted as calling the market “akin to sub prime,” than combating global warming.

It is indeed time to revisit a space-based solution for the world’s energy needs, both at the national and international levels.

Patel is the Associate Director of the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium.