By Jody McCutcheon
Solar power from space: sounds like a cool idea right out of a sci-fi novel, right?
Well, seeing as the first recorded appearance solar energy harvested from outer space was mentioned in a 1941 Isaac Asimov short story called Reason, it kind of is exactly that. And to be sure, the idea seemingly has merit. It’s always solar noon in space, so there’s basically twenty-four hours of sunlight exposure to exploit, with no seasonality restrictions on power collection. It sounds like a wholly sustainable energy source, right?
If you’re wondering why we haven’t filled our energy grids with space-based solar power (SBSP) yet, it’s mainly because the technology has been far too costly – but that’s changing.
We are closer to solar based power from space than we ever were, with many of the necessary elements ready to go, or almost ready. Essentially, the idea is to launch into space a series of self-assembling satellites consisting of solar panels and reflectors that can transmit energy to Earth with microwaves or laser beams. This assemblage of technology would in turn reflect and concentrate sunlight onto smaller collector panels. From there, the energy would be beamed down to receiving stations on Earth—via either microwave or laser transmission—from which it would then be added to the energy grid.
The creation of small, mass-produced satellites and reusable booster rockets has paved the way for SBSP to be considered in real terms rather than just fantasy. What’s more, California Institute of Technology scientists have declared they’ve developed prototype technology that allows them to harness and transmit solar energy from space (check out the specific details of their invention in this paper). This new tech’s lightweight design keeps costs and launch difficulties down, while reducing the size of receivers and transmitters. So, it seems the biggest barriers to SBSP are being overcome.
Let’s think this through…
Whether solar energy is delivered via microwaves or lasers, there are consequences to consider.
Microwaves can provide powerful daily transmissions, delivering enough energy to power a large city (upwards of one gigawatt). They’d also deliver steady, uninterrupted transmission of solar power, unimpeded by rain, clouds and other atmospheric obstacles.
But there are massive issues with microwave transmissions.
- huge start-up costs (tens of billions of dollars)
- the necessity of hundreds of launches into space of parts that would be used toward a space-based assembly of a huge satellite (as much as three kilometres wide and weighing over 80,000 metric tonnes)
- the need for a correspondingly huge earthbound receiver whose diameter would also measures in the kilometres
- the fact that microwave-transmitting solar satellites which are placed in geostationary orbit (about 35,000 kilometres into space) would make repair logistics nigh impossible.
- adding microwave radiation – even small amounts – to our atmosphere (which is already saturated with EMFs from wifi networks) could harm human and animal health
As for laser transmission, the satellites themselves are much smaller compared to those used for microwave transmission, so start-up costs are much cheaper (less than one billion). That cost includes assembly and implementation of infrastructure on Earth, as well as a single launch per transmitting satellite. And they’re only placed about four hundred kilometres into orbit. Laser beams’ small diameters make the receiving infrastructure simpler and cheaper to implement on Earth.
Laser transmission has its own problems, though. Each satellite provides much less power than a microwave-transmitting satellite (only as much as ten megawatts), so many, many satellites would be needed in space to make a significant impact on Earth. The laser beams themselves aren’t as rugged as microwaves, and may be disrupted by rain or heavy clouds and other atmospheric impediments. Finally, laser beams present safety concerns, as they potentially could inflict damage upon living creatures or even planes. A worst-case scenario could see laser beams co-opted as weapons and possibly lead to the militarization of space. Yipes!
At this point, let’s pause and consider some facts. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission approved Elon Musk’s SpaceX bid to launch nearly 12,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit starting in mid-2019. Ostensibly, these satellites will support SpaceX’s proposed, ten-billion-dollar, global broadband 5G network, which is planned to be operational come 2020.
Musk may be a noted critic of SBSP, but it’s fair to surmise that his SpaceX program is exactly the kind of platform that’s extensive and robust enough to piggyback a laser-based SBSP program. And once the infrastructure is in place up in space, why not give it a try? The thing is: SBSP doesn’t sound like such a good idea, after all.
Think about it for a moment. It seems too good to be true. A powerful technology harvesting solar energy from space and beaming it down to Earth may well be a boon to the planet, a sustainable source of energy that reduces both depletion of non-renewable resources and air pollution from fossil-fuel emissions. But what about the cons of such an endeavour? What aspects haven’t we thought through?
Cleaner energy…poorer health?
First, there’s the question of the dangers posed by the energy being beamed down from space. Microwave transmission would employ the same frequencies as those that facilitate our cellphones, radios and televisions. According to the microwave safety limits set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, they’re deemed safe. But more recent evidence suggests otherwise, especially with regards to everyday technologies such as cellphones and even smart metres.
Another concern related to microwave transmission surrounds the wavelengths used to transmit the energy from space. Most of the standard wavelengths are already clogged by regular radio frequency transmissions, plus those from military, industrial and satellite use. This necessitates the utilization of alternative wavelengths, such as millimetre wavelengths—the same ones 5G technology is proposing to use. And the impending 5G catastrophe revolution is a whole other story.
Finally, like any new technology, SBSP’s value depends on whose hands it falls into. Sure, the powers that assume control of it will say they have their constituents’ best interests at heart. But governments don’t always have strong truth-telling track records, especially when it comes to the use of new technologies (see, for example, how governments use surveillance technology on their citizens, and specifically how China plans to monitor the behaviour of its citizens with its proposed social credit system).
So, in response to the inevitable announcement that SBSP is right around the corner and its implementation has your best interests at heart, a sense of skepticism would be forgivable – especially since SBSP would likely supercede homeowner’s rights to live ‘off the grid’ with their own personal solar panels.
The kind of setup required to enable SBSP—especially if it evolves into our primary (or worse, only) power source—would basically allow governments or private corporations to control this ‘free’ energy supply, and with that, dictate prices. And there’s no guarantee they’ll sell the harvested energy to us cheaply. (See above re: governments and truth-telling.) With conventional energy sources like coal, natural gas and hydroelectric ranging in price from 3 to 12 cents per kWh, and other, less conventional, sources such as geothermal and wind comparable in price, SBSP must be offered at a cost that makes it competitive.
But even more worrisome: when it comes to laser transmission, who really wants what’s effectively a battalion of laser cannons juiced up and aimed at our planet? It may sound like paranoia, or something from a James Bond film, but with the directed-energy laser weapon technology being developed by companies like Lockheed Martin, it’s a hop, skip and jump from harvesting solar power to the weaponization of space.
It’s bad enough if the government controls our power supply – a directed-energy weapon will make it that much easier to control all of us as well.
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