Orbital solar power plants may help meet global power needs

The sun’s abundant energy, if harvested in space, could provide a cost-effective way of meeting global power needs in as little as 30 years with seed money from governments, a new study has suggested.

The study, which was led by John Mankins, a 25-year Nasa veteran and the U.S. space agency’s former head of concepts, was billed as the first international assessment of potential ways of collecting solar energy in space and delivering it to Earth via wireless power transmission.

“It is clear that solar power delivered from space could play a tremendously important role in meeting the global need for energy during the 21st Century,” the Daily Mail quoted a study group of the Paris-headquartered International Academy of Astronautics as saying.

Some scientists believe that space solar power is a potential long-term energy solution for Earth, and the idea is to put first one, then a few, and later scores of solar-powered satellites in orbit over the equator.

Each will be as wide as several kilometers across and the spacecraft would collect sunlight up to 24 hours a day.

This is compared with surface panels now used to turn sunlight into electricity which collect half of that at most.

The power would be converted to electricity on-board the spacecraft and sent to wherever it is needed on Earth by a large microwave-transmitting antenna or by lasers, then fed into a power grid.

The study, conducted from 2008 to 2010 then subjected to peer review, found that the commercial case had substantially improved during the past decade, partly as a result of government incentives for nonpolluting “green” energy systems.

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The idea of harnessing solar power in space has been studied off and on for 40 years, including by the U.S. Energy Department and NASA.

U.S. and Indian business, policy and national security analysts in September called for a joint U.S.-Indian feasibility study on a cooperative program to develop space-based solar power with a goal of fielding a commercially viable capability within two decades.

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