Harvesting Solar Power from Space

In a new report, the viability of sending solar panels into space to collect a vast quantity of uninterrupted energy has been re-investigated. Although the idea has been around since the 1970’s, space solar power has always been viewed as prohibitively expensive. In the current energy climate down here on Earth with spiralling oil prices and a massive push toward green energy sources, sending massive solar arrays into geosynchronous orbit doesn’t seem like such a strange (or expensive) idea. There are many obstacles in the way of this plan, but the international community is becoming more interested, and whoever is first to set up an orbital array will have a flexible and unlimited energy resource…

It sounds like the perfect plan: build a vast array of solar panels in space. This avoids many of the practical problems we have when building them on Earth such as land availability, poor light conditions and night time, but sending a sunlight farm into space will be expensive to set up. In the 1970’s a plan was drawn up by NASA for the possibility of orbital sunlight “harvesting”, but it was deemed too expensive with a hefty price tag of at least $1 trillion. There was no country in the world that could commit to such a plan. But as we slowly approach an era of cheaper space travel, this cost has been slashed, and the orbital solar energy case file has been re-opened. Surprisingly, it isn’t the most developed nations in the world that are pushing for this ultimate renewable energy source. India and China, with their ballooning populations are reaching a critical point for energy consumption and they are beginning to realise their energy crisis may be answered by pushing into space.

A single kilometer-wide band of geosynchronous Earth orbit experiences enough solar flux in one year to nearly equal the amount of energy contained within all known recoverable conventional oil reserves on Earth today.” – Pentagon’s National Security Space Office 2007 report.

So how could this plan work? Construction will clearly be the biggest expense, but the nation who leads the way in solar power satellites will bolster their economy for decades through energy trading. The energy collected by highly efficient solar panels could be beamed down to Earth (although it is not clear from the source what technology will go into “beaming” energy to Earth) where it is fed into the national grid of the country maintaining the system. Ground based receivers would distribute gigawatts of energy from the uninterrupted orbital supply. This will have obvious implications for the future high demand for electricity in the huge nations in Asia and will wean the international community off carbon-rich non-renewable resources such as oil and coal. There is also the benefit of the flexible nature of this system being able to supply emergency energy to disaster (and war-) zones.

It will take a great deal of effort, a great deal of thought and unfortunately a great deal of money, but it is certainly possible.” – Jeff Keuter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington-based research organization.

The most optimistic time frame for a fully operational space-based sunlight collection satellite would be 2020, but that is if we started work now. Indeed some research is being done (Japan is investing millions of dollars into a potential prototype to be put into space in the near future), but this is a far cry from planning to get full-scale operations underway in a little over a decade…

Source: CNN International

34 Replies to “Harvesting Solar Power from Space”

  1. Beaming? No way. “Beam me to a crisp, Scotty” would become the new hip phrase.

    No, they have to rethink that end of it, like, they could use the Euro space-van ATV to ferry about a billion NiCad AA’s back and forth, we could use solar to power the megatons of iPods and cameras and right there probably save us oodles on our energy costs!

    seriously, though, we’ve seen them beam single-particle information through a quantum tunnel, so do you suppose it is possible to teleport energy instead?

    Nothing more than a scaling problem, really, and if we can send high energy electrons or photos across a quantum bridge, why not move the solar array into Venus or Mercury orbit, or into the closest practical Solar orbit. Or circling Betelguese …

  2. If we build it large enough,it could also be used as a soletta(sun screen) which would help reduce global warming by actually blocking the light and casting a shadow on earth.

  3. MrG… energy and matter are simply two sides of the same coin – so if they can “beam” matter (even small amounts of it) then beaming energy is just another small step. In theory.

    My problem with this idea is that it must surely take quite a bit of energy to get the harvested energy to Earth… making it a bit counter productive.

    Kind of like the waste recycling which is supposed to be cleaner for the environment yet costs more in carbon footprint than throwing away regular rubbish. It’s all P.R.

  4. Well there is those new solar panels that could go up to abot 44% efficiency if i remember correct.
    They could use these new ones in a cluster on the ground and shine the light down onto them.
    (that is if lasers could in fact be used to power a solar panel, i honestly don’t know that one…)

    They could also try the massively long wire from the grid to the ground. (probably the most expensive.)

    They could also just fly up every so often to collect power cells.
    And i say fly up because by the time this station actually is built, space tourism would probably be in its feasible stages for public access, so i could assume that scram jets and similar technology have become fairly cheap to build and operate with.
    The only problem lies with frequency of trips and the capacity of the power cells (which would also mean more weight)

    Then of course there is the teleportation idea which i am personally hoping would work, because all the above are horrible ideas (my ideas, not the above posts =P )

  5. The “beaming” would be done with micowaves. Nothing as esoteric as entangled particles or teleportation. Transmitter in orbit, receiver on the earth. I’m sure you could also use the receiver to cook an egg or two *grin*.

  6. Yeah, we’re certainly not talking quantum tunneling or teleportation here for the power transmission. There are a number of ways to transmit power wirelessly – the theory involved is well investigated and a number of large-scale experiments have proven the concepts. The microwave region of the EM spectrum is typically used for transmission as in this region of the spectrum there exists a relatively high efficiency of conversion between the DC power that photovoltaic cells produce and the radiation used to transmit the power.

    Look up ‘wireless energy transfer’ and ‘microwave power transmission’ on Wikipedia for a decent rundown…

  7. And to close future mentioning, with quantum you can NOT teleport anything physically, let alone energy..

    However I see a few problems:
    1) space debris and space objects
    2) 6 foot time lag per year at that orbiting velocity

    But at the same time the benefits would by all means outweigh the cost and problems

  8. If this comes to pass I am sure OPEC and a number of Oil Refining Companies will be very upset, even if they provide some of the funding for the project. Changes to political power bases are always contentious. Luckily India, China and Japan are Oil poor.

  9. we’ve all imagined this. it’s only a matter of time now. one day solar panels will provide much energy for us as well as all of the jobs that will be needed to keep them running properly.

  10. Why would you go to all the trouble in obtaining Solar Power from space, when their are many placed on the earth, which have abundance of solar energy.

    The transport of the energy would be much more simple. . Places such as Sahara, Deserts in Australia USA etc.

  11. Even if deserts on the ground were good places to build huge solar power plants

    (which they are probably not, at least those places that have their sand moving around… check the info about wandering dunes, you don’t want these to wander on top of your solar panels, and there’s also the issue of sandstorms grinding the solar panels away – these things can rip the paint right off a car, how many of said storms could a solar panel survive? I guess even if it’s not destroyed and/or buried by the first one it’d still leave the protecting glass (or whatever) cover of the panel nearly opaque, thereby greatly reducing its efficiency)

    There’s still the issue of “we don’t want to trust our energy supply on [insert country].”

    If a single country with the means to build a space-based solar power plant and without suitable space for such plants on the ground doesn’t have a neighbor with enough room that they trust to 100% (and who does that today anymore?) then this might well cross their minds as a very good idea.
    Take japan for example, they don’t have enough room to build more houses, much less any big solar power plants. Or maybe even china will consider this, if none of their own deserts are sandstorm-free and consist of firm ground without sand dunes to wander on top of their sonal panels.

  12. Could we not use some kind of automated orbiting factory that turns space debris, natural amd man made, into solar panels.

    It would clean up the rubbish we put into orbit and turn it into something useful.

  13. 3 Things that kill this idea:

    1 – There is no feasible way to clean up the space junk that’s out there.

    2 – There is no way to feasibly cheaply maintain the arrays. NASA should not be involved, as it would take time, money, and astronaut manpower that could be used for other missions.

    3 – If China or somebody gets pissed off at the US, they could simply blast the solar panel stations into a million pieces.

    I think nuclear fusion is a much more realistic goal.

  14. I’ve heard things about how Tesla figured out a way to disperse electricity without wires, but that the government hushed it. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know because I haven’t actually researched it. Going nuclear is probably the more realistic goal, I agree Dark Gnat.

  15. Jerry O’Neill, champion of the “Cities in Space”movement that spawned the L5 Society back in the seventies addressed the crispy critter objection. His claim (I am not a physicist so I wouldn’t know for myself but I have no reason to doubt him) is that the microwaves used to beam the power down from the powersats would be of such low density that birds could fly through the beams and not be affected. Additionally, the receiver antennae would be made of a kind of mesh that would capture the microwaves and allow sunlight to pass on through. He recommended using pasture land for some of the receptors and painted a pastoral picture of cows grazing underneath them.

  16. The greatest potential stock play in history. Unlimited electrical energy for the world at a cost of just trillions? Provide the power to produce and poverty disappears – forever. The next step, money bites the dust. Life pursuit becomes completely passion based instead of financially grounded. How much more to trust your surgeon? Think on it.

  17. Adding energy is adding energy. However it’s done, it would add to global warming by increasing the energy from additional sunlgiht.. One way to ameliorate it would be to beam energy back out into space. Using giant mirrors?

  18. Our electrical appliances are no were near 100% efficiency. So as we beam terrawatts of energy down to earth to supply a First World lifestyle of all 10 billion of us (by 2020) my guess is the majority of that will turn into heat. At risk of sounding like a green-hippy (which I certainly am not!) how environmentally friendly will that be. We’d still be capturing extra solar energy but not actively rather than our current passive CO2 greenhouse.

    I’d rather see an increase in consumer product efficiency and a decrease in First and Developing World waste then switch away from fossil fuels to a non-CO2 energy source than just adding more energy.

  19. I read these comments and I just weep for humanity at the stupidity of people. I don’t even know where to start.

    Adding energy is adding energy. However it’s done, it would add to global warming by increasing the energy from additional sunlgiht..

    what? no. I’m sorry, but this comment is just silly. Global warming is a problem because the sun emits energy at a wavelength that can be absorbed and retained by greenhouse gases. The microwaves that a solar power satellite will use will NOT add to global warming.

    There is no feasible way to clean up the space junk that’s out there.

    At geosynchronous altitude, the amount of junk as a proportion of the total area, it so small that it amounts to zero. LEO is where the space junk problem exists.

    There is no way to feasibly cheaply maintain the arrays.

    The arrays would be simpler than the average satellite. Sure, some sats fail, but overall satellites appear to be a good idea. So if your objection doesn’t apply to sateillites, then it doesn’t apply here.

    If China or somebody gets pissed off at the US, they could simply blast the solar panel stations into a million pieces.

    This is also an objection to building the hover damn. OMFG IF CHINA GETS MAD THEY WILL DESTROY IT THEREFORE WE SHOULDNT BUILD IT!!11oneone Please, try to have a little courage.

    My problem with this idea is that it must surely take quite a bit of energy to get the harvested energy to Earth… making it a bit counter productive.

    And do you also look at the power lines that send electricity to your house and say, “it must surely take quite a bit of energy to get the electricity to my house, so therefore, power lines don’t work” You’re right, there is overhead to transmission by microwave. It is estimated that as much as 10 to 15% of the energy will be lost during transmission.

  20. i ‘ve heard that the lunar soil is so rich in a certian element that can be converted in electricity so cheaply

  21. I sympathise with you “theoneguy” – lack of quantitative argumentation skills means people fear the ridiculous and ridicule the worthwhile.

    Earth absorbs and reradiates 120 petawatts from the Sun. Excess Greenhouse gases return to the ground about 2 petawatts. Every energy liberating activity conducted by humans amounts to 0.015 petawatts. IF every human used energy like a American or Australian we’d be liberating 0.07 petawatts – 1.4% of what greenhouse gases trap. And using powersats would lead to the eventual end of coal and nukes as power sources – unless they pick up their game too.

    Nuclear fusion might make a difference – but not as colossii like ITER. Who wants electricity costing 10 times the cost of coal and still 50 years away?? If focus fusion and/or Bussard Polywell fusion prove viable then the whole game changes… IF…

  22. theoneguy:

    Obviously, your intelligence is far superior than the rest of us, so feel free to use your vastly supply of brainpower and guide us to a collective utopia.

    We’re waiting………

    ….thought so.

    My point is that there are easier ways to get more energy. It has nothing to do with courage, and everything to do with common sense. Blindly pursuing an idea and ignoring the risk is stupid.

    I’m all for solar energy, but I’d prefer to have my OWN solar panels on my roof. The government should be figuring out how to make those more affordable, so that people don’t have to rely on the “grid” as much.

  23. I agree with dark gnat on the problems.
    However, it’s more a question of WHOEVER gets their rig up in space, the thing will be vulnerable, not just ol’ Uncle Sam.
    Such projects may be cheaper compared to the past, but it may yet still require international co-operation.
    This adds another practical problem-international red tape & wrangling over who does what, who gets what share of the power/profit. Any one deciding to throw their toys out of the pram could render such an energy farm inoperative.
    I’m not being (unneccessarily) pessimistic, but any such undertaking would have to deal with these issues head-on.
    Red tape, you gotta love it

  24. Also, the article implies that going into space solves the problem of night time… however geosynch orbits still have night time – a little less maybe but its still there. Polar orbits could avoid nights but then of course you are not geo-synch any more.

    ROFL at the comment “Nothing more than a scaling problem, really” when talking about quantum mechanics. That just made my day.

    On the topic of ppl blowing the crap out of your national power grid because they are angry that you get cheap clean power… thats just stupid. Its like declaring war on some country coz they have the energy that you want and are charging lots of cash for it… oh wait, yeah thats happened before…

    Anyhow im sure that if it were something like an orbiting platform then the countries involved would realise just how vulnerable EVERYTHING in space is so they would play nice and not kill the chinese power grid incase they turn around and blow up the ISS or something else we care about.

  25. To – theoneguy.

    Your observations and corrections to other’s misunderstandings of science are generally accurate and appreciated.

    But FYI – you’re a prick for your attitude and condescending tone. Your obvious sense of superiority diminishes whatever appearance of real intelligence you actually may have had.

  26. The idea of beaming down solar energy goes back further than “the seventies”. Isaac Asimov used the Idea in one of his early robot stories “reason” in 1941!

  27. Does anyone know what “new report” this article is based on?

    No matter what, the concept of harvesting the power emitted by the sun for our energy needs is the most brilliantly obvious I’ve heard all day.

    The idea is valid; the major drawback is the technical problem of getting the power to the ground in an efficient manner. Costs will be funded by government or perhaps the oil companies themselves, and as our current energy crisis worsens, the demand will only grow.

  28. Of course, there’s the flip side. The military is always involved in basic research about things that have destructive potential. Knowing secrecy is the order of the day -and ‘treaties’ governing weaponry in orbit – would you trust the Pentagon with rivers of power and a beam which could be focussed as desired ?
    Idealistic plans die for many reasons. The Tesla one is classic : JP Morgan couldn’t figure out a way to restrict power from deadbeats if he funded Tesla’s broadcast power idea.

  29. I thought this a while ago in school (im only 17)

    is it not possible to have a HUGE generator which powers its own motion but creates an excess power which we can harvest?

    it would only need a bit of power to start it off and then could keep going forever with absolute zero carbon footprint or anything

    or maybe a huge pendulum that has a motor at the fulcrum?

    (if there are any scientists that want to develop my idea go ahead, its best for the world)

  30. The first hurdle isn’t the actual technology, its putting a price tag on the ocean, air, and land we live on (i.e the environment). Until a carbon tax is created, implemented and assessed, conventional energy will always be “cheaper” than it’s alternative counterpart.

    A trillion dollars or 10 for that matter, may not seem so expensive considering the mere fact one may not have a place to spend it in 75 years.

    Scientists, politicians, and consumers alike discount the “free” resources we use to live everyday because there is no monetary transaction; there is no money coming out of their pocket today.

    The symptoms of our negligence is apparent and impacting people’s way of life worldwide.

    Many cities in Asia have “atmosphere alerts” where it is too dangerous to walk outside during certain hours of the day. Moreover, the eastern seaboard is slowly sinking into the Atlantic Ocean.

    The availability and access to fresh drinking water has become increasingly serious whereby many countries have and are building desalination stations to meet the growing demands analogous in scale to the growing rate in energy consumption of quickly growing nations that represent almost 2/3 of the world population.

    Albeit, I am not a tree hugger ( i don’t mind their presence however) the “price tag” is not relavent. In fact, government’s overspend ridiculous amounts of money on many things, this would be no different excluding an actual and substantial return on “their” money at some point

    FIGURE OUT THE SOLUTION(S), try new things, KISS and stop complaining, YOUR ARE WASTING ENERGY! 🙂

  31. Now throw in the space elevator which world scientists are meeting next month to discuss/plan.

    This thing just gets a lot more practical – very quickly.

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