Seeing Stars has looked at solar power satellites-aka solarsats-several times in the 11-year-long lifetime of this weekly column. It's time to revisit the idea for new trends.
First, let's remember that an average of 341 watts of solar energy falls on every square meter of Earth. This includes both Earth's night side and north and south poles. Unfortunately, our atmosphere blocks a lot of the Sun's energy which is where solar power satellites, or solarsats, come in to save the day. Free of Earth's blanket of air, an orbiting fleet of solarsats could collect up to 5 kilowatts of energy per square meter.
The idea of solarsats has been around since the 1970s, but with the price of oil rising in the long term, the 21st century may become the century of solarsats.
According to Jeff Keuter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute, the concept of space-based solar power concerns developing a string of solar satellites around the Earth is technically feasible today: "It will require a great deal of money," Keuter said, "but it is certainly possible."
A recent U.S. government study suggests that a large solarsat, providing enough energy to light several large cities the size of Burlington, Vt., would cost $10 billion. The price tag excludes ground-based infrastructure to collect the solarsat's beamed microwaves and distribute the electricity.
Japan is currently spending millions of yen to develop a prototype solarsat that's still many years away from flying. The recent Japanese nuclear accident has caused even more attention on that nation's solarsat project.
A new U.S. firm that is pioneering space-based power is Exploration Partners, LLC of New Mexico and Oklahoma. The firm is a shoe-string operation but it's one among a group of creative, emerging pioneers in solarsat financing and development.
Formed in 2005 by entrepreneurs Royce Jones and Tom Taylor, EP developed two, low-cost space-solar power satellite designs. The designs were created with cost effectiveness and safety in mind.
A single EP solarsat could generate 100 megawatts of electrical power.
Estimated costs? How does $250 million per satellite plus $150 million to launch in low Earth orbit sound? That's considerably lower than U.S Government estimates plus there's no "visual pollution" from the likes of large conventional power stations or noisy wind generators cluttering ridgelines and seacoasts.
According to EP's Royce Jones, "The financing (for our solarsat plan) is pretty straight forward. Each power satellite is leased to the end user. We don't sell the power generated, they do. Since the satellites are small, i.e., only 20,000 kg., and can launch on a single existing launch vehicle, they are fairly inexpensive versus building a nuke plant. Each satellite, that we call a SolarSat, can produce 100MW of power to the grid. There are two basic markets-the northern nations and the equatorial nations. Each market will have its own constellation of satellites."
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a science writer at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. He is currently a member of the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador program. He received the U.S. Civil Air Patrol's Charles E. 'Chuck' Yeager Aerospace Education Achievement Award and has several NASA accolades to his credit from his involvement in popularizing space science in Vermont and beyond.