Like fusion energy, space-based solar power has been the energy technology of the future, which it has remained for several decades. The Space Reviews Jeff Foust reports that a study suggests the future is at last approaching.
What is space-based solar power?
Space-based solar power was a concept first proposed by Peter Glaser in 1968, a concept for which he got a patent in 1973. The idea was that solar collectors could be deployed in space to generate power from the sun, unshielded by the Earth's atmosphere, then beamed via microwaves to collection stations on Earth called rectennas that would convert the microwave energy to electricity to be added to the power grid.
The concept of solar power satellites was taken up in the 1970s by Gerard K. O'Neill, who turned it into part of a concept for free floating space colonies. O'Neill's idea was that these colonies, located at one of the Lagrange points where the Earth's and moon's gravities cancel out, would build space based solar power plants, using materials from the moon or captured asteroids. The O'Neill concept is related in a book, "High Frontier." The idea inspired the formation of "The L 5 Society" which advocated the building of such colonies.
What has stood in the way of space-based solar power?
The one word that applies is cost. While space based solar power may provide unlimited and renewable energy, the cost of the infrastructure needed to build such stations is staggering. Besides cheap, reusable space craft, for the O'Neill concept to work, a lunar mining colony as well as the free-flying space colony would have to be built at great cost. Even if space based solar power were to become profitable and begin to replace fossil fuels, the payback would not be for some years after the project began.
What does the report referenced in The Space Review article say?
The report, issued by the International Academy of Astronautics, suggests space-based solar power stations are not only technically feasible now but could become economically viable within one to three decades. The report suggests that a pilot plant could be deployed in the near future using existing launch vehicles, such as the Delta IV, the Atlas V, and the Falcon 9. Larger plants would require advances in reusable launch vehicles, though.
But the IAA study does introduce the idea of erecting space based solar power stations in a modular fashion. The idea is that instead of scaling up from a small pilot plant, the new architecture could just be added to in order to increase its power generation capacity. The costs per kilowatt hour are still astonishingly high and, naturally, further study will be needed to make space based solar power viable.
ark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times and The Weekly Standard.