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Solar from Space? (DOE subsidies here too)

By Donn Dears -- February 10, 2016

“The media tries to glamorize solar power rather than doing a professional job of reporting the obvious story and what’s behind the story.”

A recent news story trumpeted an announcement from the Air University at Mawwell Airforce Base about power from space.

A team from the Air University has proposed installing PV solar panels in space to capture the energy from the sun and transmit it to Earth. The team is in line to receive a $10 million grant from the Department of Defense for the team’s proposal, “Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill.

The news story didn’t explain why this proposal was any different from those made over a decade ago. Just a lot of hyperbole, such as this lead:

Sci-fi isn’t all fiction anymore. Harnessing the power in outer space is closer than we think, and in just a few years, electrical energy from the sun could be beamed down to charge the smartphone in your pocket. Think Bluetooth, but on a galactic scale.

With a result of all-good-things according to the reporters Rebecca Burylo and Andrew Yawn:

What they came up with hopes to reassert the U.S. as a leader not only in space, but also in energy production and other technologies, as well as fight climate change, create jobs and make the U.S. a clean energy exporter.

While the science fiction aspect of electricity from space dates back to Asimov in the 1940s, the concept has been given serious study by NASA and others.

The 2007 report by the Department of Defense’s National Security Space Office’s Advanced Concepts Office identifies the issues:

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/meter squared), collect gigawatts of electrical energy, electromagnetically beam it to Earth, and receive it on the surface for use either as base load 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.

Like all futuristic proposals, including those put forward by devotees of concentrating solar and PV solar installations on the earth itself, the practical issues of converting the sun’s enormous energy into collectible, usable energy energy is glossed over.

The proposal from Air University,”Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill” would appear to be another politically motivated attempt to glamorize solar power rather than address the real issues highlighted in the DOD report. (See http://bit.ly/1TjW7Cn )

The DOD report phrased the question as follows:

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?

The military could, of course, use power from space even if it cost several dollars per kWh, because getting energy to remote areas of the world can cost much more in terms of money and lives.

Unfortunately, the report merely proposed additional studies, but a few major obstacles stood out as to why spaced based solar remains impractical at this time.

These obstacles were:

  • The cost of installing the infrastructure in orbit, i. e., the ability to launch and assemble solar panels into structures the size of several football fields
  • The ability to safely transmit the energy to Earth using lasers or microwaves
  • Protecting the solar panels from solar storms
  • Preventing any adversary from destroying the panels, which would cut off the supply of electricity from space

The last two are critical if we were to rely completely on obtaining our electricity from space. Space-based power actually compounds the threat that already exists if the grid were destroyed by a super solar storm, such as the Carrington Event, or by a nuclear EMP or cyber attack.

The media tries to glamorize solar power rather than doing a professional job of reporting the obvious story and what’s behind the story.

The government has already spent approximately $100 million investigating space based solar power. (“NASA and DOE have collectively spent $80M over the last three decades,” 2007 report, SpaceBased Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security.)

Shouldn’t government spend some time and effort resolving the obvious four issues identified above before spending another $10 million of tax payer money on a politically motivated proposal such as the Air University’s “Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill?” At a time of an enormous, growing federal budget deficit, such a question is surely merited.

One Comment for “Solar from Space? (DOE subsidies here too)”

  1. Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup #215 | Watts Up With That?  

    […] the public] Solar from Space? (DOE subsidies here too) By Donn Dears, Master Resource, Feb 10, 2016 http://www.masterresource.org/spac… The High Cost of Renewables By Donn Dears, Power For USA, Feb 9, 2016 […]


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