“Space-based solar? That’s a blast from the past,” says Dr. Laura Kay, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. “It’s not quite as crazy as the people who want to mine the moon for resources, but it’s out there.”
Kay’s reaction is highly indicative of the scientific community as a whole: space-based solar power is seen as a quaint idea from yesteryear that is too unfeasible to implement. SBSP gets a bad rap, and yet it represents a real possibility to change the way humanity creates energy to run the world.
In many ways, the technology is there, and has been for decades – the most basic of silicon solar cells that could be used in a space solar farm have existed since the 1950s, and the rectenna that transforms the microwave beamed down to earth into usable electricity for the grid was invented in 1964. According to a report by NBC, “Electrical power flows into the power grid, just as if it were generated by a terrestrial source. The typical system design calls for producing 1.2 to 4.8 gigawatts of electricity for local grids.” This means SBSP does not depend on updating the electric grid for implementation. (Of course, modernizing the grid through automation and remote control to create a Smart Grid, as legislation has already begun to push forward, is an important step for the energy market in general to increase efficiency and optimize power usage, with or without space-based solar).
Aside from cultural perceptions about space-based solar being a ridiculous fantasy, which of course is no easy obstacle to overcome, the greatest challenge for SBSP is the cost. The money to build the structures for the satellites and solar cells, money to launch said objects into space, money to build the receiving station on earth, and money to maintain the whole system once operational adds up to a hefty price tag: $20 billion according to the star proponent of U.S. SBSP efforts, John Mankins.
Twenty billion dollars seems like a lot, and the thought that the United States Congress could approve such a huge sum may make anyone who even half follows U.S. politics laugh, but let’s follow the money for a moment to put that number in perspective.
As hard-fought a struggle as it was, the successful passage of and implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) shows that the United States does have the ability to support hugely costly projects – Obamacare’s net cost was projected to be $1.487 trillion (though the actual number thus far is about $100 billion less than expected as it stands today, according to a recent report in the Washington Post). SPS-ALPHA’s $20 billion price tag is about 75 times less than that. What’s more, SBSP generates energy, which is a valuable commodity that can be sold and produce a profit. In the 1980s, when Boeing was seriously considering a SBSP plan, the company claimed that “the revenue from one solar power satellite, producing 10,000 megawatts of electricity sold at a rate of 40 mills per kilowatt hour, would produce $105 billion in 30 years. Forty-five satellites would produce more than $4.7 trillion, less than the cost of electricity generated by the oil-burning electricity generation plants.”
The price tag is not the only thing that would make governments and citizens alike balk, however. A SBSP project, even at the earliest estimates for initial launch in 2025, would take a decade to build. “It’s not a quick fix, and that’s what people want,” Kay points out. SBSP has huge promise, but it requires long-term planning that seems to be the anathema of a world obsessed with the immediate and instant.
Today, that immediacy comes from fossil fuels’ effective monopoly on energy resources. Coal and oil have dominated the energy landscape for a hundred and fifty years since the Industrial Revolution. As such, the infrastructure and systems are already in place supplying us with a constant stream of power produced by burning oil and goal. Young clean energy technology like SBSP faces an uphill battle against the entrenched traditional energy suppliers. Today’s economy is dependent on these fossil fuels, with hugely wealthy and powerful groups – Big Oil companies (Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, and others) and lobbyists (Koch Industries, the American Petroleum Institute) – leading the conversation in regard to energy, keeping themselves at the forefront and pushing both alternative energies and the harmful effects of fossil fuels aside with nearly $400 million worth of political contributions during the second Bush era alone.
The fossil fuel industry employs thousands, and some might worry that these jobs will be lost in the changeover to alternative energies. To that, John Marston, Vice President for US Climate and Energy of the Environmental Defense Fund, writing in an op-ed in Forbes this week, says, “What’s different now, however, is that the evidence against them is so convincing that voters, energy customers, and most everyone else recognize that opposition to renewable energy is based on lost corporate profits. Cries of ‘higher energy costs’ and ‘lost jobs’ are no longer credible arguments against the clean energy revolution.”
New sources of energy will trade in the losses for thousands of new green jobs. Space-based solar power would require a huge surge of employees – besides the obvious manufacture of satellites and solar technology, jobs would be created for launching the project into orbit – SpaceX’s current 3 thousand employees would represent a laughably tiny percentage of the workforce dedicated to bringing a space-based solar station online. Furthermore, the terrestrial receiving stations, if the SBSP project in question were using the more powerful microwave system of beaming, would require several kilometers of facility that would in turn mean hundreds of jobs to run and maintain.
Space-based solar power, for all its promise, is also not the only answer. There is no end-all, be-all solution to our energy crisis. Wind, hydro, geothermal, terrestrial solar, and other alternatives all have the capacity to provide clean, efficient energy and to help remake the energy market. Implemented together, these new sources of power can diversify and strengthen the energy economy, while at the same time saving the Earth, our home, from the disastrous effects of fossil-fuel induced climate change.
If we want to change the way we make and use energy, shifting away from fossil fuels and trends of a warming world, rising seas, and the catastrophic effects of such trends, we must put our ingenuity and our dedication to alternative energy resources, of which space-based solar power could be an integral part, to the test. To seriously affect change in energy production and policy, the sky cannot be the limit.