Will Obama Champion Space-Based Solar Power?

  • Published on December 21st, 2008

space-based solar power

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.

Image: america.gov

About the Author

is the founder of ecopolitology and the executive editor at LiveOAK Media, a media network about the politics of energy and the environment, green business, cleantech, and green living. When not reading, writing, thinking or talking about environmental politics with anyone who will listen, Tim spends his time skiing in Colorado's high country, hiking with his dog, and getting dirty in his vegetable garden.


  • Space-based solar has some advantages, but the “intensity” referred to in the article is both a plus and a minus. In space, you can’t just dump excess heat into a handy river. The cost of building and maintaining orbital infrastructure is vastly greater than over equivalent ground installations.

    No doubt something could be put together and it might actually work someday, but it’s not going to be cheap and it’s not getting up there quick.

    And anyone with a creative mind can think of lots of nasty things to do with a megawatt microwave transmitter in geostationary orbit. Do we really think our international competitors will trust us never to accidentally zap their satellites?

    There’s nothing wrong with a little R+D, and orbital solar as a means of powering space devices is definitely better than putting more plutonium in orbit. But let’s not kid ourselves that it could be up and running before the smart grid/battery cars system.

  • There is no reason whatsoever not to start on orbital solar right now. The money that goes to NASA salaries and to solar panel makers will also be spent in the broader economy. It's an excellent part of an overall stimulus package and certainly more worthy than a Big Three bailout not to even mention the absurd financial black hole of the banking system.

    Sure we need short-term solutions like solar thermal, long-term commitments to photovoltaic incentives and wind too. But calling wind near term compared to orbital solar is misleading since the electricity that wind creates basically needs a smart grid which implies massive adoption of plug-in hybrid cars. That's not short term by any means.

    The only real short term alternative is solar thermal because it produces the kind of stable electricity that the current grid can make use of without major changes.

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