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article imageSolar Power Satellities A Potential Energy Source?

By Bob Ewing     Oct 16, 2008 in Technology
Ben Bova is calling on the next president to build an armada of solar power satellites (SPS) -- basically large accumulations of solar cells -- to help meet a substantial chunk of U.S. energy needs.
Ben Bova is the president emeritus of the National Space Society and a prolific science fiction author. Last Sunday Bova wrote a column Washington Post calling on the next president to build an armada of solar power satellites (SPS) which are basically large accumulations of solar cells.
The purpose is to help meet a substantial chunk of the United States' energy needs. This is not a new idea it the concept was created by aerospace engineer Peter Glaser.
Basically a satellite in high orbit (where sunshine is always present) would use microwave power transmission to beam solar power to receiving stations on Earth.
This would provide a continuous 24-hour, 365-day supply of solar energy. Powered by solar energy itself, a single SPS could generate up to 10 gigawatts of energy continually.
If this is actually possible consider how much continuous power a group of these SPSs could provide.
This is, however, an expesnive proposition. According to Bova a SPS could deliver electricity at a cost of only about 8 - 10 cents per kilowatt hour, which would make it very competitive with conventional power sources. The catch is the upfront costs -- both to build the satellite ($1 billion apiece) and to launch it would be fairly substantial; launching it into space successfully would be a whole other story.
As economies of scale begin take hold and component prices drop and the planwould begin to look much more appealing. How long that will take, though, is anybody's guess. The technologies are in place -- solar, satellite and microwave -- but putting everything together in working order presents a major challenge.
A project of this scale would boost the United states economy by creating both many new jobs and contracts for a variety of companies, and it would give NASA a worthy new pursuit.
NASA's primary goal could become the construction of a demonstration model SPS able to deliver 10 to 100 megawatts by the end of the president's second term.
Will a President be willing to fund such a project if it doesn't start making measurable progress sooner -- 8 years is a long time to wait for a technology that may not even work in practice.
A perk is this project may also help spur interest in other space-related technologies and developments and could, in later years, create an entire new industry around space launchers.
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