Seeing Stars has looked at solar power satellites-aka solarsats-several times in the 11-year-long lifetime of this weekly column. It's time to revisit the idea for new trends.
First, let's remember that an average of 341 watts of solar energy falls on every square meter of Earth. This includes both Earth's night side and north and south poles. Unfortunately, our atmosphere blocks a lot of the Sun's energy which is where solar power satellites, or solarsats, come in to save the day. Free of Earth's blanket of air, an orbiting fleet of solarsats could collect up to 5 kilowatts of energy per square meter.
The idea of solarsats has been around since the 1970s, but with the price of oil rising in the long term, the 21st century may become the century of solarsats.
According to Jeff Keuter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute, the concept of space-based solar power concerns developing a string of solar satellites around the Earth is technically feasible today: "It will require a great deal of money," Keuter said, "but it is certainly possible."
A recent U.S. government study suggests that a large solarsat, providing enough energy to light several large cities the size of Burlington, Vt., would cost $10 billion. The price tag excludes ground-based infrastructure to collect the solarsat's beamed microwaves and distribute the electricity.
Japan is currently spending millions of yen to develop a prototype solarsat that's still many years away from flying. The recent Japanese nuclear accident has caused even more attention on that nation's solarsat project.
A new U.S. firm that is pioneering space-based power is Exploration Partners, LLC of New Mexico and Oklahoma. The firm is a shoe-string operation but it's one among a group of creative, emerging pioneers in solarsat financing and development.
Formed in 2005 by entrepreneurs Royce Jones and Tom Taylor, EP developed two, low-cost space-solar power satellite designs. The designs were created with cost effectiveness and safety in mind.