Space-Based Solar Power May Yet Happen

SPS-ALPHA (Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large Phased Array) is a creative idea to solve our power problems. The basic idea is to place tens of thousands of lightweight, inflatable modules space in orbit around the earth. Once assembled into a huge bell-shaped structure, mirrors will concentrate energy from the sun onto solar panels. The energy thus collected would then be beamed down to ground stations on Earth using microwaves.


(Space-based solar power array)

“SBSP is the ultimate energy source for the world and eventually it's going to replace nearly everything else,” says Ralph Nansen of US-based advocacy group Solar High, with some of the characteristic hyperbole that defines both sides of the SBSP debate. “I don't think there's any doubt that within the next century we will be getting the majority of our power from space. It's just a question of when.”

Nansen, like other SBSP advocates, contends that instead of building huge solar farms on the surface of the Earth, which are at the mercy of fluctuating weather conditions and the cycle of day and night, mankind should fly a little closer to the sun. Specifically, they advocate building solar farms in geostationary orbit 35,800km (22,000 miles) above the Earth's surface. There, sunlight has an intensity of 1,347 Watts per metre squared - about 30% more intense than on the Earth's surface, meaning greater electricity production. And depending on its orbital position, an SBSP system could harness direct sunlight almost the entire year round, unlike terrestrial solar farms.

Budding entrepreneurs may find enthusiasm from Planetary Resources co-founder Eric Anderson, who sees its potential, but has no immediate plans to invest in SBSP research or development.

“The only way to get solar energy that is truly plentiful, reliable, and available from anywhere is through SBSP, but the set-up costs are exorbitant,” he says. However, commercially-funded SBSP might take off if it is initially used to deliver power to markets and locations that are “insensitive to price,” such as military positions, disaster scenes, and search and rescue operations, he adds.

The article credits Isaac Asimov's 1941 short story Reason with originating the idea of a solar station. However, I think Olaf Stapledon was earlier with his Near-Space Solar Energy Collectors from his 1937 novel Star Maker.

Via SPS-ALPHA and a very detailed article at BBC.

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