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The Forum > Article Comments > Solar power from space: moving beyond science fiction > Comments

Solar power from space: moving beyond science fiction : Comments

By Michael Lemonick, published 10/9/2009

For more than 40 years scientists have dreamed of collecting the suns energy in space and beaming it back to Earth.

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Transmitting energy in the form of microwaves, then converting them into electricity is enough to send a shudder throughout the copper industry. If it can be done to efficiently transmit solar energy beamed from space, it can just as easily be done to transmit electricity between any points on the earths surface - possibly reducing the waste presently experienced in transmitting energy?

The only advantage of much more expensive space based solar energy is that it would provide base load electricity free of GHG emissions. But then so do terrestrial based hydro, geothermal and nuclear, and they do it far more cheaply.

We can not ignore the fact that major advances have been and will continue to be made in both the storage and generation of electricity from solar energy produced on earth. It is even possible though so far it has been glacially slow that improvements will be made in the efficiency with which PVCs convert sunlight to electricity.

Then of course, there is the question of vulnerability. Defending an earth-based power station with an array of missiles is more easily achieved than defending a PVC array and associated equipment in space. Remember the naught Chinese who flexed their muscles by shooting down one of their own satellites. That should have provided ample warning to strategic thinkers that it is not only communications satellites which are vulnerable.

In the end of course, it all comes down to the relative cost of the electricity generated free of GHG emissions and delivered to the consumer. If a PVC array in geo-stationary orbit can do it cheaper and with equal reliability, its a winner! However, nothing in the article suggests that this is at all likely.

On the other hand, development of the technology to improve transmission of electricity is a definite attraction and well worth pursuing
Posted by JonJay, Thursday, 10 September 2009 10:42:34 AM
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Nice idea but the devil is in the detail. First off the power station in space concept would be hideously expensive - billions of dollars to gain a few dollars worth of electricity.. then you have the huge problem of getting the electricity down from space.. microwaves will do but high voltage transmission using microwaves is an unknown area. the problems include the link between space and the receiving dish. What happens if the link is lost at the beam - thousands of megawatts - starts drifting across the countryside. Study the issue by all means, but don't expect too much..
Posted by Curmudgeon, Thursday, 10 September 2009 12:01:50 PM
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Interesting idea, indeed. I remember reading this sort of stuff in the 70s.

Certainly it will be hugely expensive to build, but surely like many massive infrastructure projects like this, the initial expense is pretty much a once-off?

Consider the "space elevator", an idea first put forward by Arthur C. Clarke, which has been shown to be technically feasible. Sure, it's expensive - around the cost of the First Gulf War - but once built, the payoff in cheap access to space is immeasurable.

Mind you, I wonder how long it would take for Orange Bellied Parrots to show up in space? ;)
Posted by Clownfish, Thursday, 10 September 2009 12:28:30 PM
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Will someone calculate the energy required to build the throw away launchers and the fuel needed to get the many satellites into orbit and then work out the payback period.
It will probably use more energy than the satellites will ever produce.
Then factor in the pollution generated by building the launchers etc. and in producing the fuel. And include the burning up in the atmosphere of the launchers and the waste of resources that are used in their building.
Posted by PeterA, Thursday, 10 September 2009 5:38:11 PM
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Really thought provoking article. Can see some technology challenges but it gives the lie that the earth is a closed system.

Peter A is representative of the green doomsayers - tedious.
Posted by Cheryl, Thursday, 10 September 2009 7:21:19 PM
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Cheryl - sorry but PeterA has a point... to build something decent would require a very substantial effort consuming a great deal of energy. This is not about the pollution but about the energy consumed. Nor would it stop after the intial construction. Something that complex would probably require occasional maintenance visits and even refuelling (yes, satellite have their own fuel supplies - so they can undertake limited orbital corrections).. an noted, interesting idea but not likely to come about.. pity.
Posted by Curmudgeon, Friday, 11 September 2009 1:56:43 PM
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