The Western Lines

October 20, 2007

The Renaissance of Space Based Solar Power

Filed under: Alex Michael Bonnici — ralphbuttigieg @ 7:56 pm

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007 may very well be remembered as a historical milestone in the creation of a spacefaring civilization. On this date The Space Solar Alliance for Future Energy (SSAFE), a new organization advocating investment in space-based solar power technologies to address the planet’s future energy needs, was founded.

This organization is a coalition of thirteen leading research organizations and space advocacy groups formed in the wake of a resurgence of interest in space based solar as highlighted by the publication of a new study entitled ‘Space-Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security’ by the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office (NSSO). Interest in space based solar power is undergoing a new renaissance. Our nation is finally waking up to the fact that it must commit itself to a policy of energy independence and give up its debilitating addiction to Mid-eastern oil. This is a strategy that I had advocated in a previous article exactly one month before the announcement of the formation of SSAFE.

“The study concludes that space-based solar power deserves substantial national investment as a path towards addressing America’s future energy needs via a renewable energy source with no carbon emissions or hazardous waste. In the Space Solar Power concept, developed in the late nineteen-sixties by Dr. Peter Glaser, energy from sunlight is collected in space and transmitted wirelessly for use on Earth.

Mark Hopkins, Senior Vice President of the National Space Society, stated, “As the United States makes decisions now to answer the energy challenges of the next 50 years, space-based solar power must be a part of the answer. While the technical challenges are real, significant investment now can build Space Solar Power into the ultimate energy source: clean, green, renewable, and capable of providing the vast amounts of power that the world will need. Congress, federal agencies and the business community should begin that investment immediately.”

The new Space Solar Alliance for Future Energy (SSAFE) will promote the findings of the NSSO-led study, and seek to communicate the benefits of the technology to business, government and the general public.

According to Air Force Colonel-Select M.V. ‘Coyote’ Smith, the leader of the study, “When we started this work I had my doubts about the technology. But as the facts poured in, it became obvious that my initial assessment was wrong. Not only is this possible, but space-based solar power is probably the greatest opportunity to develop a safe, clean source of energy that can readily be shared
with all of humanity.”

The founding members of SSAFE are the National Space Society, Space Frontier Foundation, Space Power Association, Aerospace Technology Working Group, Marshall Institute, Moon Society, ShareSpace Foundation, Space Studies Institute, Spaceward Foundation, AIAA Space Colonization Technical Committee, ProSpace, Space Enterprise Council, and Space Generation Foundation.

The National Security Space Office (NSSO)’s Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) study group highlighted the strategic importance of this untapped energy resource and advocated it development in order to safeguard American’s long term energy security in the post 9/11 world. A national commitment towards the development of space based solar power is a major step towards our long term survival on this planet and a permanent human presence in space which is economical sustainable and politically justifiable.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Consistent with the US National Security Strategy, energy and environmental security are not just problems for America, they are critical challenges for the entire world. Expanding human populations and declining natural resources are potential sources of local and strategic conflict in the 21st Century, and many see energy scarcity as the foremost threat to national security. Conflict prevention is of particular interest to security-providing institutions such as the U.S. Department of Defense which has elevated energy and environmental security as priority issues with a mandate to proactively find and create solutions that ensure U.S. and partner strategic security is preserved.

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 basic idea is very straightforward: place very large solar arrays into continuously and intensely sunlit Earth orbit (1,366 watts/m2), collect gigawatts of electrical energy, electromagnetically beam it to Earth, and receive it on the surface for use either as baseload power via direct connection to the existing electrical grid, conversion into manufactured synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, or as low-intensity broadcast power beamed directly to consumers. 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. This amount of energy indicates that there is enormous potential for energy security, economic development, improved environmental stewardship, advancement of general space faring, and overall national security for those nations who construct and possess a SBSP capability.

NASA and DOE have collectively spent $80M over the last three decades in sporadic efforts studying this concept (by comparison, the U.S. Government has spent approximately $21B over the last 50 years continuously pursuing nuclear fusion). The first major effort occurred in the 1970’s where scientific feasibility of the concept was established and a reference 5 GW design was proposed. Unfortunately 1970’s architecture and technology levels could not support an economic case for development relative to other lower-cost energy alternatives on the market. In 1995-1997 NASA initiated a “Fresh Look” Study to re-examine the concept relative to modern technological capabilities. The report (validated by the National Research Council) indicated that technology vectors to satisfy SBSP development were converging quickly and provided recommended development focus areas, but for various reasons that again included the relatively lower cost of other energies, policy makers elected not to pursue a development effort.

The post-9/11 situation has changed that calculus considerably. 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. Our National Security Strategy recognizes that many nations are too dependent on foreign oil, often imported from unstable portions of the world, and seeks to remedy the problem by accelerating the deployment of clean technologies to enhance energy security, reduce poverty, and reduce pollution in a way that will ignite an era of global growth through free markets and free trade. Senior U.S. leaders need solutions with strategic impact that can be delivered in a relevant period of time.

In March of 2007, the National Security Space Office (NSSO) Advanced Concepts Office (“Dreamworks”) presented this idea to the agency director. Recognizing the potential for this concept to influence not only energy, but also space, economic, environmental, and national security, the Director instructed the Advanced Concepts Office to quickly collect as much information as possible on the feasibility of this concept. Without the time or funds to contract for a traditional architecture study, Dreamworks turned to an innovative solution: the creation on April 21, 2007, of an open source, internet-based, interactive collaboration forum aimed at gathering the world’s SBSP experts into one particular cyberspace. Discussion grew immediately and exponentially, such that there are now 170 active contributors as of the release of this report—this study approach was an unequivocal success and should serve as a model for DoD when considering other study topics. Study leaders organized discussions into five groups: 1) a common plenary session, 2) science & technology, 3) law & policy, 4) infrastructure and logistics, and 5) the business case, and challenged the group to answer one fundamental 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? Discussion results were summarized and presented at a two-day conference in Colorado on 6-7 September graciously hosted by the U.S. Air Force Academy Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies.

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2 Comments »

  1. G’day,I think SPS are well worth studying and perhaps a small test unit could be orbited. But I don’t see what the price of oil has to do with it. Not much oil is burn’t for electricity these days, oil is a transport fuel. Unless of course electric cars do take off. taRalph

    Comment by Ralph Buttigieg — October 21, 2007 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

  2. Hello Ralph, Its always great hearing from you. Now back to the topic at hand. : ) I know that in your native Australia coal is mostly utilized for the generation of electricity. But, in Malta and much of Western Europe we use oil. The same can be said for some parts of the United States and Canada. But, closer to home (meaning Malta) the price of oil has had a drastic effect on the cost of electricity. We are currently paying a surcharge of 52 % and the government is taking measures to offset this through subsidies.http://www.timesofmalta.com/core/article.php?id=4004So the price of oil is a big issue here both for the housewife and at the gas (or petrol) station. I hope Dennis’ new book gets to press real soon so he can help me save a ton of money. : )Alex

    Comment by Alex Michael Bonnici — October 21, 2007 @ 12:26 pm | Reply


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