Sustainable Living – The Solar From Space Race

The idea of wireless power transmission has been around for a long time now, ever since Tesla demonstrated it over 100 years ago, but the jump to generating solar power in space and beaming it back to earth is a big one – does it add up?

The idea of space based solar power is getting a lot of interest from scientists in Europe, where their largest space company, EADS Astruim is looking for partners to operate a demonstration solar power mission in orbit. The power would then be transmitted to earth using infrared laser. On the face of it, the plus points sound promising; clean power, inexhaustible supply, available day and night, no atmosphere, dust or clouds to reduce the effect of the solar arrays. The thought of solar arrays in space working between 3 to 5 times more efficiently is rather impressive and EADS Astrium are working with Surrey University in the UK to develop ground based converters where hopes are to achieve efficiency levels of 80%+.

The Japanese are keen as well. Back in September 2009, Mitsubishi Electric Corp signed up to the to 2 trillion yen Japanese space based solar plan which will use microwave technology to beam the power back to earth. The plan is to power 300,000 homes from a satellite with 4 square kilometres of solar panel, producing 1 gigawatt of power. A smaller test satellite is planned for 2015.

In the States, the race for solar from space isn’t going quite to plan. NASA has dabbled with the idea for the past 40 years and has spent a fair bit of money doing so but currently has no plans to develop this technology. Those who are believers in solar space had hoped Obama would breathe new life into it with his backing of renewable energy. Perhaps he still will as there have been senior appointments at NASA who are advocates of space solar. Don’t forget, there’s also the private market. Late last year, Californian regulators approved a space solar project to start supplying up to 200 megawatts from space by 2016. Solaren, a company run by aerospace veterans, plan to use a lightweight 1km diameter collector and transfer the power back to earth using microwaves. So, from a USA perspective, NASA may not be doing a lot but the race is most definitely still on.

But does any of this make sense? The Japanese say they need to cut the cost of putting the equipment into space by 100 times, transmission by microwaves does raise serious health issues and the problems associated with maintenance in space just adds to the financial black hole these systems could develop. I am editor at realityGreen where our aim is to be realistic about creating sustainable living and reducing our carbon footprint. I am under no illusion that as a planet we must push forward with sustainable development but when one looks at the benefits (basically 24 hour a day solar and much higher efficiencies from solar panels), one has to ask whether the technology is just too tough at the moment (with solar arrays measured in square kilometres floating around in space) and the finances would be astronomical.

We do have a planet bursting with renewable energy. We have tides which are guaranteed, with have deserts where sunshine may not be 24 hour but again, virtually guaranteed. We have great developments in areas such as concentrating solar power which have huge potential, tidal power has hardly been tapped, neither has wave. Sustainability must be achieved and it is hard not to believe that if this money was used to develop more ‘down to earth’ solutions we would actually stand a chance at creating a sustainable lifestyle.