The idea of a solar plant in space that beams energy back to the earth may seem strictly like science fiction, however, according to experts, it is not outside the realm of possibility.
While solar energy is a fantastic alternative to fossil fuels, its main limitations is that it is intermittent. Since the 1960s, researchers at both NASA and the Pentagon have been trying to get around this limitation by designing solar power apparatuses for use in outer space, where solar energy gathering would not be useless by nighttime or cloud cover.
Space solar power would also have the benefit of not being filtered out by the atmosphere, allowing more solar energy to be absorbed, since 23% of incoming solar energy is absorbed by water vapor, dust etc. Yet another benefit of space solar power is that since solar energy is constant, it would not need to be stored, especially since storage can lead to the loss of up to 50% of the energy.
Various experts have been vocal about the possible benefits of moving solar panels from the ground to space, making them much more efficient and possibly helping to ensure our survival.
“In countries right now where they’re trying to deal with poverty, water scarcity, poor health, lack of education and political instability — these are all things you need energy in order to fight,” said PhD Paul Jaffe, spacecraft engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
“In the long run, renewable large-scale energy sources such as space solar power are essential to sustaining industrial civilization, and the long and increasingly high quality of lives that we enjoy,” said John C. Mankins, the founder of Mankins Space Technology. “Without vast amounts of affordable energy, the human population would inevitably collapse down to much smaller numbers. Without large-scale zero-carbon energy, human-driven climate change will result in the eventual destruction of ecosystems and human habitats worldwide.”
Most space solar proposals would work by using large meters on the satellite to reflect sunlight into the center of a spacecraft where it could be converted to either laser or microwave energy than deemed back to the earth. The microwave or laser energy could be sent back to earth uninterrupted at any time, regardless of rain or other adverse weather conditions, and that an intensity level no stronger than the sun in the day which means no worries about harming people, animals or infrastructure. The energy would be collected by power receiving stations on the ground and then fed into the grid.
The space solar model comes with many advantages including quick transportation, however, it would be extremely expensive. The high cost needed to develop and deploy a space solar unit has some pessimistic about the feasibility of the project. In fact, back in 2012, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk said that “we should stab that thing in the heart”.
Nonetheless, Jaffe, Mankins, and others stand by the idea and have managed to make a persuasive case to the Department of Defense at the D3 Summit pitch challenge. The D3 Summit pitch invites experts in various fields to pitch ideas for projects which have utility in the areas of diplomacy, development, and defense. Jaffe’s plan took home four of seven awards.
As for the cost concerns, Jaffe says those aren’t the deal killer others make them out to be. Jaffe thinks that the initial stages of development could be completed by 2021 for only about $350 million, resulting in the plant stationed in orbit and capable of powering more than 150,000 homes for $10 billion.
“People look at space solar and say: ‘It’s not going to be cost competitive,’ ignoring the fact that there has to be maturation,” said Jaffe. “Over time, things become more efficient. Wind and solar literally took decades to get competitive with carbon-based alternatives. I see similar potential here. In many ways, the future of space solar rests less on scientists and engineers, and more on people who decide what they want to pay for.”