Space-based, solar power. Can’t get more Sci-Fi sounding thanthat–not without speaking Klingon, anyway. But the final frontier ofsolar technology is being taken seriously by Japan, who have announcedplans for a $21 billion solar-powered generator in the heavens toproduce one gigawatt of energy, or enough to power 294,000 homes.
What? The massive numbers and high-brow science are difficult to wrapone’s mind around (at least this mind). But the idea is, instead oftaking solar panels and sticking them on your roof why not send photovoltaic arrays off into space and beam solar energy back to earth.
Since they are constantly exposed to the sun, such solar powersatellites could potentially provide a continuous stream of 5-10gigawatts of energy. Insert your own "Beam me up, Scotty" joke here,if you wish.
Ben Bova, president of the National Space Society, claims the technology is not as farfetched as one would think. Wealready know how to send materials into space, and we have built largesuperstructures in zero-gravity environments (think the space station),so perhaps building a giant solar collector in space is not entirelyout of the question.
Apparently Japan finds some merit in these ideas. Recentdevelopments in its government include the collaboration betweenMitsubishi Electric Corp. and industrial design company IHI Corp to develop new technology within four years that can beam electricity back to Earth without the use of cables.
Mitsubishi and IHI are joining a research group containing 14 othercountries to tackle the daunting task of getting Japan’s four squarekilometer solar space stationup and running in the next three decades. By 2015, the Japanesegovernment hopes to test a small satellite, decked out with solarpanels, that beams power through space and back to Earth.
Japan is developing the technology for the 1-gigawatt solar station,fitted with four square kilometers of solar panels, and hopes to haveit running in three decades–and they’re not alone.
Can It Be Done?
The obstacles are huge right now–the staggering cost being thenumber one culprit. The project to generate electricity in space andtransmit it to earth may cost at least 2 trillion yen. Launching asingle rocket costs about 10 billion yen.
Transporting panels to a solar station 36,000 kilometers above theearth’s surface will be prohibitively costly, so Japan has to figureout a way to slash expenses to make the solar station commerciallyviable, said Hiroshi Yoshida, Chief Executive Officer of Excalibur KK, a Tokyo-based space and defense-policy consulting company. They must be lowered to one hundredth of the predicted costs.
Even if costs are lowered, solar stations will have to worry about damage from micrometeoroidsand other flying objects. Still, space-based solar operates perfectlyunder all weather conditions, unlike Earth-based panels that are at themercy of the clouds.
But the fact countries are taking this idea seriously–to the tuneof $21 Billion–says something to the power of ideas, not to mentionthe often welcome influence of Science Fiction.