Solar Potential

A recent news story by McClatchy Tribune trumpeted an announcement from the Air University at Mawwell Airforce Base about power from space.

A team from the Air University has proposed installing PV solar panels in space to capture the energy from the sun and transmit it to Earth. The team is in line to receive a $10 million grant from the Department of Defense for the team’s proposal, “Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill.

The McClatchy story didn’t explain why this proposal was any different from those made over a decade ago.

While the science fiction aspect of electricity from space dates back to Asimov in the 1940s, the concept has been given serious study by NASA and others.

The 2007 report by DOD’s, National Security Space Office’s Advanced Concepts Office identifies the issues.

Quoting from the DOD report:

“The magnitude of the looming energy and environmental problems is significant enough to warrant consideration of all options, to include revisiting a concept called Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) first invented in the United States almost 40 years ago. The basic idea is very straightforward: place very large solar arrays into continuously and intensely sunlit Earth orbit (1,366 watts/meter squared), collect gigawatts of electrical energy, electromagnetically beam it to Earth, and receive it on the surface for use either as base load power via direct connection to the existing electrical grid, conversion into manufactured synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, or as low‐intensity broadcast power beamed directly to consumers.”

Graphic from National Security Space Office Report
Graphic from National Security Space Office Report

Like all futuristic proposals, including those put forward by devotees of Concentrating solar and PV solar installations on the earth itself, translating the huge amount of energy available from the sun into a practical method for collecting and distributing the energy is glossed over.

The proposal from Air University,”Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill” would appear to be another politically motivated attempt to glamorize solar power rather than address the real issues highlighted in the DOD report. (See )

The DOD report phrased the question as follows:

“Can the United States and partners enable the development and deployment of a space‐based solar power system within the first half of the 21st Century such that if constructed could provide affordable, clean, safe, reliable, sustainable, and expandable energy for its consumers?”

The military could, of course, use power from space even if it cost several dollars per kWh, because getting energy to remote areas of the world can cost much more in terms of money and lives.

Unfortunately, the report merely proposed additional studies, but a few major obstacles stood out as to why spaced based solar remains impractical at this time.

These obstacles were:

  • The cost of installing the infrastructure in orbit, i. e., the ability to launch and assemble solar panels into structures the size of several football fields
  • The ability to safely transmit the energy to Earth using lasers or microwaves
  • Protecting the solar panels from solar storms
  • Preventing any adversary from destroying the panels which would cut off the supply of electricity from space

The last two are critical if we were to rely completely on obtaining our electricity from space. Space based power actually compounds the threat that already exists if the grid were destroyed by a super solar storm, such as the Carrington Event, or by a nuclear EMP or cyber attack.

The media, such as McClatchy, try to glamorize solar power, rather than doing a professional job of reporting, not only the obvious story, but also reporting on what’s behind the story.

The government has already spent approximately $100 million investigating space based solar power. Shouldn’t it spend some time and effort resolving the obvious four issues identified above, before spending another $10 million of tax payer money on a politically motivated proposal such as the Air University’s “Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill?”


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See Chapter 9, of Nothing to Fear: The Utility Death Spiral.

Nothing to Fear is available from Amazon and some independent book sellers.
Link to Amazon:

Book Cover, Nothing to Fear
Book Cover, Nothing to Fear

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