Japanese plan space-based solar power

Tom James @ 03-09-2009

714px-Space_solar_powerThe Japanese government has taken another step towards actually building a space based solar power plant. Mitsubishi Electric Corp and industrial design company IHI Corp are to develop a design for a SBSP plant to be up and running at some point in the next three decades:

By 2015, the Japanese government hopes to test a small satellite decked out with solar panels that beams power through space and back to Earth.

There are still a number of hurdles to work through before space-based solar power becomes a reality though. Transportation of the solar panels into space is too expensive at the moment to be commercially viable, so Japan has to figure out a way to lower costs. Even if costs are lowered, solar stations will have to worry about damage from micrometeoroids and other flying objects. Still, space-based solar operates perfectly under all weather conditions, unlike Earth-based panels that are at the mercy of the clouds.

It makes sense to start moving in this direction, but will practical implementation arrive fast enough to help reduce global warming emissions?

[from Inhabitat, via Slashdot][image from Wikimedia]

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19 Responses to “Japanese plan space-based solar power”

  1. Screen Sleuth says:

    From space, eh? I wouldn’t be surprised if they pulled it off.

  2. Robert Koslover says:

    I find your final remark amusing. Redirecting energy from space that would otherwise miss the Earth definitely causes the planet to be warmed. In contrast, for example, Earth-bound wind farms just consumes wind energy (which is powered by solar energy that hits the Earth) which would dissipate on the Earth as heat anyway. So wind farms don’t heat the Earth at all (at least, not from their operation. Manufacturing them is a different matter.) But beaming energy from space most definitely does heat the Earth. So true believers (and I am not one) in “Global Warming” shouldn’t support space-based power beaming.

  3. gmoke says:

    Will this tech be deployed fast enough to reduce climate change? No and it will, in all probability, add problems by laser or microwave transmission of the energy it collects through the atmosphere.

  4. Kian says:

    Ideally the amount of energy dissipated by the added microwave flux will have less of an effect than the continuous emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. I suppose alot the energy is just a more efficient of obtaining (but not transferring) solar energy and as such I would be surprise if it actually added alot more energy into the Earth’s system. I personally would be slightly more worried about emissions set about to build this apparatus and set it in orbit. Would be interesting to see if it works and I hope its successful.

  5. Greg says:

    Mr. Koslover- while you are technically correct that the satellites would be routing more energy to the Earth’s surface than would otherwise reach it, the amount of warming caused by such a method of energy generation would be infinitesimal compared to the decrease in warming due to the abandonment of other, much “warmer” means of energy generation. While you are right that wind farms add no energy to the system that wasn’t already there, I think that the additional warming from solar satellites would be so minute that it would practically be nonexistent.

  6. Tom James says:

    Well, according to the font of infallible knowledge that is Wikipedia /irony:

    The entire point of a solar power satellite is to increase the amount of solar energy reaching Earth. This extra energy will eventually be dissipated as heat. Depending on the scale of operations, this might or might not have a significant effect. No theories to date claim that waste heat from human power generation are a significant cause of global warming, nor would it be for the foreseeable future.

    The most widely promoted theory connecting human activity to global warming is that increased greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide and methane) are increasing the amount of the heat from the sun that is prevented from radiating back into space, thus increasing mean land and sea temperatures. Provided that space solar power was to replace conventional production (and not as an additional power source), it could contribute to reducing further emissions of greenhouse gases.

    Rectenna power conversion efficiency would be better than 90%, so waste heat from the rectennas would be considerably less than from most other common power sources, e.g. nuclear and fossil fuels which generate much more waste heat.

  7. Robert Koslover says:

    To Greg: Your point about asking which effect is worse is a good one; it can only be answered via computation and experiments. The science, in my view is NOT settled. (There are tens of thousands of scientists on differing sides, after all.)
    To Tom: I don’t blame you for citing Wikipedia here, but the comment about the 90% efficiency there is very misleading. You see, ALL (I repeat, ALL) of the radiation beamed from the satellite(s) to the Earth eventually (whether at the rectenna or later) gets dissipated into heat, with exceptions only for: (a) light-generated that actually leaves the planet entirely (is not absorbed on Earth); or (2) power used in endothermic reactions that store energy into chemical bonds. Note that only the tiniest fractions of electric usage will meet one of those criteria. And so, once again, all (99%+) of that power beamed from space will go directly into global warming. Fortunately for me, that is not a problem in my view, because: (1) I do not believe we are being threatened by global warming anyway, and (2) I don’t think the power involved is enough to really matter. But Earth-warming from power beaming is vastly-simpler than climate science. It heats the Earth. Admittedly not very much, but it still does. And windmills don’t.

  8. Kian says:

    ” You see, ALL (I repeat, ALL) of the radiation beamed from the satellite(s) to the Earth eventually (whether at the rectenna or later) gets dissipated into heat,”

    Isn’t this point arguable of almost all forms of fuel source we use.

  9. Babylon says:

    Another important side effect of this is that it does not generate the other harmful effects of conventional power generation. Smog, acid rain, etc. Things that seem to have been forgotten in the debate about global warming.

  10. lilbear68 says:

    but what if a spotted own flies thru the beam and is killed, thus furthuring their endagerment and their desperate effort to survive
    the epa will have something to say about all this just wait and see

  11. Matt says:

    Honestly, this looks like a great idea. However, microwave based power distribution can be tricky. Hopefully, they will will use triple redundant safety systems in case the satellite points the wrong direction, otherwise someone will is get barbecued.
    However, this could be a very promising technology. I say make a prototype, build it and evaluate the technology. If the data shows it will work, then I say do it.

  12. Patrick says:

    Unfortunately, no one here has realized the political implications of having basically an energy weapon in space. Currently, there are no nukes in space (that we know of) due to Soviet/Cold War era brokering between the USSR and the USA. Who wants weapons in space right? Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but as everyone who’s played Sim City 2000 knows, when you build a microwave powerplant and the satellite misses, guess what happens to your town? Cue 8-bit explosion effects as you watch your city erupt in flames.

    Now, imagine that North Korea decides to launch another “test” missile into the Sea of Japan and the Japanese happen to have a SBSP plant operational. It “glitches”, drifts off course, and “shorts”, firing a burst of microwave energy at, say, that town on the Southern North Korean border that exists solely as a propaganda stunt (no inhabitants except military police). Japan claims it was an accident, NK doesn’t believe it, decides to lob a nuke, and bada bing, we’ve got a situation up in here.

    Having weapons in space, especially weapons NOT under governmental control, is an extremely dangerous proposition. So lets hope that some politician realizes the danger inherent in this proposition and tries to reduce the risk we’re taking on by introducing potential energy weapons into geosynchronous orbit.


  13. Paul Raven says:

    I’m not sure I trust governments any more than I do corporations, Patrick, but your points are well made.

  14. Cooper says:

    …and what happens if they miss the dish? I for one have no desire to be boiled in my skin, nor would I wish that fate on anybody else.

  15. Wicket Warwick says:

    @ Patrick, “bada bing, we’ve got a situation up in here” lol, hilarious analogies from “Sim City” all the way to “War Games” Global Thermonuclear War, with a little Die Hard, Yippee ki-yay muther *WHAT!!* kudos for making me laugh

  16. zee says:

    i don’t understand – why go as far as outer space – wouldn’t solar sails just above cloud level be sufficient?

  17. Squash says:

    Love how somebody else realises that Simcity 2000 is the forefather of this technology. And I definitely remember the scenario when the beam misses the dish. Scary stuff!

  18. Seygantte says:

    I thought of something like this when I was about 5. My parents said it was a silly idea. Can’t help but feel somewhat cheated :/

  19. transhuman says:

    well, an article i read about the subject did say that energy transmission in the form of microwaves wouldn´t pose any threat to anything. Due to the beam being dispersed over a quite large area, acctually standing on the collector wouldn´t more than make you fell a bit warmer. But then again I acctually don´t know. If you want a good place for more information check: http://www.nss.org/settlement/ssp/