The National Space Society has submitted a policy paper (pdf) to the Obama-Biden transition team concluding that Space-Based Solar Power is more technically executable than ever before and urging federal investment that would be necessary to capture large amounts of electricity from space
This wouldn’t be the first time the federal government has delved into Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP or SSP). NASA and DOE have collectively spent eighty million dollars over the last three decades in sporadic efforts studying the viability of collecting solar energy in space—where the solar resource is far more intense—and beaming it to Earth.
For me three questions immediately arise: 1. How could something like this actually work? 2. Where will the money come from? And where will the political will come from? Let’s look at those briefly.
It is beyond the scope of this work to get into the technical specifics of SSP, but The Economist says it succinctly enough:
“The logical place to put the satellite would be in a geostationary orbit, 35,800 kilometres above the earth’s equator, so that it completes one circuit of the planet per day, and thus appears (from the ground) to hover in a fixed place in the sky, like the communications satellites used to broadcast television signals. The solar-power satellite would send the collected energy down to earth in the form of a microwave beam, which would be picked up on the ground by a huge array of antennae, spread over several square kilometres in open country.”
The policy idea submission to change.gov sites a 2005 Pentagon-sponsored report suggesting that a government-led proof-of-concept demonstration could serve to catalyze commercial sector development. That SBSP Study Group concluded that while significant technical challenges remain, there is no reason to curtail further investigation.
But such were the conclusions as far back as 1981 when the Department of Energy, NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Commerce found “no show-stoppers” or “insurmountable obstacles” to the idea. What would be needed, suporters argue, is a coordinated effort and a lead agency that could take control of the project and not let it fall through the cracks of bureaucratic control.
Such cooperation between these agencies is certainly not unheard of. For example, Department of Defense, NASA, and other federal agencies have a strategic research partnerships to develop on a dark energy observatory.
But there has also been some discussion that Obama could make cuts at NASA, if for no other reason than something has got to be cut somewhere. Although funding NASA may not be a top priority for Obama, a strong argument could be made that investment in SSP research program would sync with his focus on building a clean energy economy. It also helps that the idea has been supported by Defense Department officials who see SSP applications in the transmission of electricity to remote locations to support military actions.
I’m not suggesting that Obama will use the cover of the Defense Department to expand solar research, but used as part of a strategy that promotes economic growth and environmental health, it may be a strategic choice that has some political legs.
Whatever political method the Obama administration uses to hammer on the clean energy agenda, it is clear that Obama’s will be a science-based administration. And as recently as yesterday, Obama reiterated that his administration would not stifle hard-to-swallow science, but nurture it. Obama said in his weekly address:
“Today more than ever before science holds the key to our survival as a planet and the security and prosperity as a nation. It’s time once again that we put science at the top of our agenda and restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.”
If that includes a robust Space-Based Solar Program, we’ll have to wait and see.