A space-based solar power (SSP) system capable of meeting the energy needs of millions of people could be “deployed within a decade using technologies that are today in the laboratory,” says John C. Mankins, a former manager of the Advanced Concepts Studies Office of Space Flight for NASA and widely considered one of the world’s leading experts on space-based solar power.
On Monday (November 14th) Mankins took to the podium of the National Press Club in downtown Washington, D.C. to reveal the findings of a new report Space Solar Power: The First International Assessment of Space Solar Power: Opportunities, Issues and Potential Pathways Forward (IAA, 2011).
The U.S. Department of Energy has previously suggested that sending solar-collecting satellites to space would continue to be prohibitively expensive and that less than 1% of global energy use would come from space-based solar projects by 2035.
Mankins says that engineers will be able to demonstrate multi-megawatt power transmission, with an energy cost of $1 to $5 per kilowatt hour, within 10 to 15 years. “It’s something that can be accomplished by this generation of engineers. This initial demonstration could be done without the development of a new reusable launch system.”
The report served as a very public endorsement from the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) of Mankins’s longstanding proposal for spaced-based solar power. As previously covered in THE FUTURIST, the Mankins plan calls for
“…Many thousands of small, identical solar-gathering modules [coming] together to form a much larger whole, the same way that thousands of similar ants come together to form colonies and millions of quite similar Web sites and Web servers form the Internet… The logistics of building and launching a type A mini-satellite 9,000 times (then type B, then type C) is less daunting than figuring out how to launch a few extremely complex, independently functioning machines.”
The satellites would beam energy to Earth using microwaves. Mankins points out that the energy transfer would be completely safe, harming neither humans nor wildlife that passed beneath them. The energy would be collected on Earth via rectennas that could be composed of a simple mesh, rather than bulky panels, and would have a low impact on the surrounding environment.
“The consensus is that [SSP] is technically achievable. But because of Mankins’s new approach, it appears the model will be economically viable in a much shorter time frame than previously thought possible,” said Mark Hopkins, the Senior Vice President of the National Space Society and one of the sponsors for the event.
“The networked approached really suggests that a breakthrough is possible in terms of schedule, and with the modular program a breakthrough in terms of cost,” said Mankins. He suggested that a pilot demonstration could be launched for $10 billion dollars, within ten years, and could generate ten megawatts electricity, comparable to small terrestrial solar plants today.
The advantages of space-based solar power over conventional solar designs are efficiency and reliability. Solar power collection in space is seven to ten times more efficient than is collection on Earth, and, of course, harnessing the Sun’s power in space can happen twenty four hours a day with no interruption.
Future space-based solar power projects could lead to jobs for five million people, who would build and launch the satellites, according to the study. “These are high tech jobs. Space based solar power could be more important than the railroads in the 19th Century and automobiles in the 20th,” said Hopkins.
Mankins and Hopkins were careful to point out that SSP would not suffice as a replacement for terrestrial solar power programs. But the two could compliment one another. They believe that SSP could comprise up to 5% of the Earth’s future energy consumption. “If it works well we can become net energy exporters,” said Hopkins.
Mankins says that the satellites his plan calls for (because they would use microwaves rather than lasers) couldn’t be used as weapons. But he concedes that there is some geostrategic advantage to being the first county to implement SSP. “This was an international study. My personal belief is the first one to get there realizes the benefits of building the infrastructure and the capability.”
Japan has long been a thought leader in this field of research and the list of reviewers of the Mankins report is heavy with Japanese names.
Hopkins points out that there is now growing interest in space-based solar power China, as well.
“The development of a solar power station in space will fundamentally change the way in which people exploit and obtain power,” Chinese space technology expert Xiji Wang said at event in August. “Whoever takes the lead in the development and utilization of clean and renewable energy and the space and aviation industry will be the world leader.”
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