Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Power Stations in Space: No Panacea; But No Kidding, Either

"Controversy Flares Over Space-Based Solar Power Plans" (December 2, 2009)

"Space solar power advocates may soon get their day in the sun, as different projects aimed at beaming energy to Earth from orbit begin to take shape. But at least one space power scientist worries that a U.S.-based project may be promising too much, too soon.

"Last week, California regulators proposed a plan to approve a 15-year contract with the American company Solaren Corp. to supply space-based solar power to utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) by 2016. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has also teamed up with a private Japanese coalition to design a solar space station for launch by the 2030s.

"Such projects encourage scientists who dream of harnessing the sun's power directly, without the interruption of cloudy skies and Earth's day-night cycle. Marty Hoffert, a physicist at New York University and one of the staunchest supporters of space solar power, suggests that today's technologies allow space solar power to provide energy as cheaply as the usual solar panel arrays on Earth.

" 'The problem is that we're treating space solar power as something that has to compete with coal right now,' said Hoffert, who gave a recent talk on beamed power at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. 'Nothing can compete with coal.'..."


A Brief Side-Trip: Power Stations in Space, an Idea from the Seventies (and before)

The idea of generating electrical power in space and beaming it down to Earth is nothing new. NASA did a design study back in the mid-seventies, detailing how a mining operation on the moon, orbital construction facilities, and a semi-permanent community of about 10,000 people could build and operate power stations in space - and pay for itself in several years.

That community of about 10,000 wouldn't have been living in a high-tech Quonset hut, by the way. Apart from the agricultural sections, some mission-specific facilities near the hub, and being shaped something like a bicycle wheel, living there would be about as crowded as a Greek coastal town: with climate to match.

Except that rain, if any, would come on an 'as needed' basis.

I can think of worse sorts of places to live.

I'm sure that the idea of space-based power stations predates the NASA study: probably by decades. And now, finally, it looks like someone's looking at taking a good idea and making it a reality.

Power Stations in Space: Overselling; Technical Issues

Besides the "controversy" of concerns of over-selling the project as an immediate replacement for coal power plants, there's the question of whether to use radio frequencies or optical wavelengths to beam the power down.

Electromagnetic radiation in the radio range (microwaves, specifically) could be beamed to Earth-surface collectors through clear sky or clouds, and is relatively unaffected by atmospheric turbulence. And, apparently, the start-up costs for the sort of heavy-duty transmitters and collection grid would be higher than the alternative.

Optical wavelength lasers combine the difficulties of maintaining an orbiting station with the drawbacks of ground-based solar collectors: Earth's atmosphere is dandy for providing us with oxygen and rain - but it's turbulent and often cloudy. Particularly in places where we live. (In the middle of, say, the Gobi Desert, not so much.) But, it looks like the start-up costs for a laser system would be less than for an equivalent microwave power transmitter.

The question of whether to cut corners on initial expenses, or do it right the first time, is one that I'm glad I don't have to answer. I've got an opinion, obviously, but I don't have all the facts - and don't have to raise the money.

As I've said in another blog, "it's different, when you're in charge."

Power Stations in Space Cause Cancer?! Or Endanger Spotted Owls, or Something

What's missing, as far as I could see, in the article is a discussion of what I think will be a major 'crisis,' when knowledge of this project starts filtering into the traditional news media.
Remember When Power Lines - and Everything Else - Caused Cancer?
It's been a while, since high-tension power lines were feared as a source of cancer. That was in the part of the "good old days" when just about everything either caused cancer or heart disease - maybe both. These days, "genetically engineered foods" are among American culture's equivalent of the evil eye.

But someone's sure to make the connection: microwaves - atmosphere - ozone layer - microwave popcorn gone wrong - and we're all gonna die.

Sounds silly, when I put it that way. But have an "expert" talk about "electromagnetic radiation" (like microwaves, sunlight, the "heat" part of a heat lamp), ozone holes, and dreadful dangers: and some folks will seriously think that the world will end if we stop burning coal to make electricity, and move the production end off-planet.

Of course, there are alternatives. Like hooking small generators to each Exercycle in every gym across the land, or outlawing elevators and replacing every stairway with a sort of reverse-escalator with a generator. (When someone steps on a tread, the tread would go down, turning the generator. Run fast enough, and you'll get healthy exercise, get to the next floor, and Save The Earth - all at the same time!)

Seriously? I think power plants in space makes sense.

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