Solar power from space: here in ten years?

One of the most visually striking science fictional solutions to our hunger for energy has to be SBSP – solar power beamed from space. Nothing says ‘awesome’ quite so much as a lance of coherent energy zapping through the atmosphere and into a collection station before powering your toaster or charging your pod-car…. but how soon might it turn up?

According to the not-so-imaginatively named start-up company called Space Energy, Inc, it could be soon. Space Energy says “it plans to develop SBSP satellites to generate and transmit electricity to receivers on the Earth’s surface […] The hitch: this concept is based on as yet unproven technology.”

For ‘unproven’ there, you might want to swap in ‘sketchy’:

… the actual test results conducted for a Discovery channel documentary proved a total failure. The former NASA executive and physicist who organized the experiment, a John Mankins, admitted in a press conference that the $1 Million budget spent of the experiment resulted in less than 1/1000th of 1% of the power transmitted being received on the other island.

Ouch. I wonder if SE, Inc are sincere but a little deluded, or whether they’re another snake-oil energy company? There’s been a few of those cropping up recently, and I can’t help but suspect there’ll be more to come… especially when the price of oil starts rising again.

Still, maybe two decades will do it for space-based solar – apparently the Japanese are on the case:

Researchers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have begun to develop the hardware for a SBSP satellite they hope to launch by 2030. They will begin testing this month of a microwave power transmission system designed to beam the power from the satellites to Earth.

All very well, but will no one think of the birds?

5 thoughts on “Solar power from space: here in ten years?”

  1. I probably shouldn’t open this can of worms, but haven’t y’all noticed that every single joule of energy delivered to the Earth in this manner is one that would otherwise have missed us? Unlike almost anything we could do while sitting on the surface Earth, this technology directly alters the Earth’s balance of power between incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared. Personally, I see this as a good thing, since it should help to reduce the risk of near-term ice-ages, which I consider a much more serious threat than global warming. But I remain surprised that the global warm-mongering crowd hasn’t objected to this technology yet. After all, anyone worried about global warming should prefer to launch shades to block the sun, not reflectors (or equivalently, absorbers and re-radiators as microwaves) to enhance the delivery of solar energy to the Earth! Of course, anything we are likely to actually build will have too small an impact to matter. But let’s not lie to ourselves. There may not be any actual carbon in this technology, but for all practical purposes, it would have a very heavy “carbon footprint,” since it simply skips over the carbon/greenhouse phase and delivers its energy straight into heat. By the way, this concern was once known as “thermal pollution.” Interestingly, I haven’t seen that term used for many years now. Funny how things change, isn’t it?

  2. In response to “All very well, but will no one think of the birds?”, I should add yes, people have indeed thought of the birds! They have also thought of aircraft, which are, I believe, far more likely than birds to experience problems due to exposure to modest levels of microwave radiation. The solution is to keep the power density (power per area) relatively low and to collect it on the ground with one or more large fields of microwave receiving antennas. As both a physicist and microwave antenna scientist, I am skeptical that this will become economical in a mere ten years. But hey, that doesn’t mean I’d refuse research dollars to study it .

  3. Funny how things change, isn’t it?

    Good thing we’ve got your reliable pet subject to keep us grounded in routine, then. 😉

    Re: planes and microwaves – I’d have thought it would be easier to keep planes away from the beams than birds. But the low power thing is interesting; the article mentions a Japanese receiving station “3 km across”, so I figure they’re thinking in the same way.

  4. 1. Ok Paul, you have a good point. 😉
    2. As you may already know, modern aircraft can be more susceptible to microwaves than birds for the simple reason that the former are loaded up with wiring, circuits, and electronics. The electronics can interpret inadvertantly-coupled microwave signals as command instructions, causing malfunctioning of the aircraft. Standard aircraft lightning-protection measures go a long way toward preventing this, but they are not designed to block the higher-frequencies that would be used in space-to-earth power transmission. I don’t consider this a show-stopper, but rather just another factor to assess and mitigate. Also, if people were really worried about exposing birds to RF/microwaves, we wouldn’t load up our landscape with TV and radio broadcasting towers, weather radars, and much more, all of which expose birds sufficiently close to the transmitting antennas to RF/microwave intensities that vastly-exceed OSHA standards (at least, for humans). Of course, almost everything in the world is dangerous to birds; the key to bird survival is rapid reproduction so new birds replace the ones that die. I don’t mean that to sound heartless, just realistic.

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