An Energy Fix Written in the Stars

By Ben Bova
Sunday, October 12, 2008

You're heading into some rough times as you move into the White House, Mr. Future President, what with the economy in recession, financial markets in turmoil, global warming, terrorism, war and soaring energy prices. But I can offer you a tip for dealing with that last issue, at least: Look to the stars.

That's right. You can use the powerful technology we've forged over a half-century of space exploration to solve one major down-to-Earth problem -- and become the most popular president since John F. Kennedy in the process.

Right now, the United States is shelling out about $700 billion a year for foreign oil. With world demand for energy increasing, gas prices will head toward $10 per gallon during your administration -- unless you make some meaningful changes. That's where space technology can help -- and create new jobs, even whole new industries, at the same time.

You'll have to make some hard choices on energy. Nuclear power doesn't emit greenhouse gases, but it has radioactive wastes. Hydrogen fuels burn cleanly, but hydrogen is expensive to produce and hard to distribute by pipeline. Wind power works in special locations, but most people don't want huge, noisy wind turbines in their backyards.

Solar energy is a favorite of environmentalists, but it works only when the sun is shining. But that's the trick. There is a place where the sun never sets, and a way to use solar energy for power generation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: Put the solar cells in space, in high orbits where they'd be in sunshine all the time.

You do it with the solar power satellite (SPS), a concept invented by Peter Glaser in 1968. The idea is simple: You build large assemblages of solar cells in space, where they convert sunlight into electricity and beam it to receiving stations on the ground.

The solar power satellite is the ultimate clean energy source. It doesn't burn an ounce of fuel. And a single SPS could deliver five to 10 gigawatts of energy to the ground continually. Consider that the total electrical-generation capacity of the entire state of California is 4.4 gigawatts.

Conservative estimates have shown that an SPS could deliver electricity at a cost to the consumer of eight to 10 cents per kilowatt hour. That's about the same as costs associated with conventional power generation stations. And operating costs would drop as more orbital platforms are constructed and the price of components, such as solar voltaic cells, is reduced. Solar power satellites could lower the average taxpayer's electric bills while providing vastly more electricity.

They would be big -- a mile or more across. Building them in space would be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one: We already know how to construct the International Space Station, which is about the size of a football field. And the SPS doesn't require any new inventions. We have the technology at hand.

Basically, an SPS needs solar voltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity and microwave transmitters to beam the energy to the ground. We've been using solar cells to power spacecraft since the 1950s. Solar cells are in our pocket calculators, wristwatches and other everyday gadgetry. You can buy them over the Internet. Microwave transmitters are also a well-developed technology. There's one in almost every kitchen in the nation, in the heart of our microwave ovens.

Some people worry about beaming gigawatts of microwave energy to the ground. But the microwave beams would be spread over a wide area, so they wouldn't be intense enough to harm anyone. Birds could fly through the thinly spread beams without harm. Nevertheless, it would be best for the receiving stations to be set up in unpopulated areas. The deserts of the American Southwest would be an ideal location. You could gain votes in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California!

It's ironic, but when solar power satellites become commonplace, the desert wastes of the Sahara and the Middle East could become important energy centers even after the last drop of oil has been pumped out of them. SPS receiving stations could also be built on platforms at sea; Japan has already looked into that possibility.

I admit, solar power satellites won't be cheap. Constructing one would cost about as much as building a nuclear power plant: on the order of $1 billion. That money, though, needn't come from the taxpayers; it could be raised by the private capital market. Oil companies invest that kind of money every year in exploring for new oil fields. But the risk involved in building an SPS, as with any space operation, is considerable, and it could be many years or even decades before an investment begins to pay off. So how can we get private investors to put their money into solar power satellites?

This nation tackled a similar situation about a century ago, when faced with building big hydroelectric dams. Those dams were on the cutting edge of technology at the time, and they were risky endeavors that required hefty funding. The Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam and others were built with private investment -- backed by long-term, low-interest loans guaranteed by the U.S. government. They changed the face of the American West, providing irrigation water and electrical power that stimulated enormous economic growth. Phoenix and Las Vegas wouldn't be on the map except for those dams.

Solar power satellites could be funded through the same sort of government-backed loans. Washington has made such loan guarantees in the past to help troubled corporations such as Chrysler and Lockheed. Why not use the same technique to encourage private investment in solar power satellites? If we can bail out Wall Street, why not spend a fraction of that money to light up Main Street?

What's more, a vigorous SPS program would provide a viable market for private companies, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, that are developing rocket launchers. Like most new industries, these companies are caught in a conundrum: They need a market that offers a payoff, but no market will materialize until they can prove that their product works. The fledgling aircraft industry faced this dilemma in the 1920s. The federal government helped provide a market by giving it contracts to deliver mail by air, which eventually led to today's commercial airline industry.

A vigorous SPS program could provide the market that the newborn private space-launch industry needs. And remember, a rocket launcher that can put people and payloads into orbit profitably can also fly people and cargo across the Earth at hypersonic speed. Anywhere on Earth can be less than an hour's flight away. That's a market worth trillions of dollars a year.

It will take foresight and leadership to start a solar power satellite program. That's why, Mr. Future President, I believe that you should make it NASA's primary goal to build and operate a demonstration model SPS, sized to deliver a reasonably impressive amount of electrical power -- say, 10 to 100 megawatts -- before the end of your second term. Such a demonstration would prove that full-scale solar power satellites are achievable. With federal loan guarantees, private financing could then take over and build satellites that would deliver the gigawatts we need to lower our imports of foreign oil and begin to move away from fossil fuels.

I know that scientists and academics will howl in protest. They want to explore the universe and don't care about oil prices or building new industries. But remember, they howled against the Apollo program, too. They wanted the money for their projects, not to send a handful of fighter jocks to the moon. What they failed to see was that Apollo produced the technology and the trained teams of people that have allowed us to reach every planet in the solar system.

A vigorous SPS program will also produce the infrastructure that will send human explorers back to the moon and on to Mars and beyond. It could also spur young students' interest in space, science and cutting-edge technology.

Americans are a frontier people at heart. We have a frontier that begins a scant hundred miles overhead and contains more riches of energy and raw materials than the entire Earth can provide. Mr. Future President, if we use these resources wisely, we can assure prosperity and peace for the world -- and you have the opportunity to write your name in capital letters across the skies.

Ben Bova is president emeritus of the National Space Society and the author of nearly 120 nonfiction books and futuristic novels, including "Powersat," a novel about building the first solar power satellite.

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