With many world governments rejecting the few kinds of base load electrical power that is currently available in wake of the Fukushima accident and climate change, is it possible to re-examine the Space-based Solar Power (SSP) concept as an emergency power supply to a situation comparable to the one witnessed in Japan this year?
The answer is "yes", according to space scientists who have been working on Space solar power for last two decades.
Baseload power plants (using non-renewable fuels like nuclear and coal) typically run at all times through the year except in the case of scheduled maintenance or repairs and produce energy at a constant rate, usually at a low cost.
Space Solar Power is a system of placing very large arrays of light solar panels in high Earth orbit, (in space) where sunlight is, "five to seven times as strong as solar power on the earth's surface and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said the founder of America's Space Development Steering Committee Howard Bloom.
"Any equipment placed in space is totally immune to fires, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, local wars and other forms of destruction on the ground," John K Strickland, who specialises in issues relating to access to space, planetary bases, space solar power and environment and is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Space Society (NSS) in the US told PTI.
The power generated from sunlight in space can be converted to a wide beam of microwaves or a tight beam of laser light and sent down to the ground very efficiently.
"The idea arose at one of our Space Development Steering Committee meeting recently, partly as a response to thinking about how the Japanese nuclear accident could have been prevented just by making emergency power available from space in a few hours," Strickland and Bloom said.
Since no one has died as a result of Fukushima accident, the power is
just as (or even more) valuable at any disaster scene where people are
dying as a result of no power, Strickland said.
Power at the nuclear plant at Fukushima was knocked out by tsunami,
causing damage to power lines and the backup diesel generators, while
the pumps themselves were apparently not damaged initially. All they
needed was a source of electricity which could have come from SSP, he
The equipment (about 5-20 tonnes), to provide about one Megawatt (or
more) of power from such a laser power beam can be quickly moved to the
site of an emergency or disaster, by a large helicopter in a single
trip. The exact weight and volume of the solar panels would need to be
determined by engineers, Strickland said.
The emergency receiver equipment, consisting of thin sheets of solar
panels, would be brought in from outside the disaster area, where it
would be stored in a safe location.
The idea is intended to provide emergency power to any disaster site or
sites on Earth, and would only take three satellites to implement, he
"A single satellite would cover most of Asia and I would assume that is
where the first satellite would be placed. All that is needed at the
site is a flat rooftop or area of ground about 50-100 feet wide to
arrange the set of solar panels flat on the surface. The satellite, in
the same orbit used by your TV signal satellite, would aim a laser beam
also about 50-100 feet wide from 22,000 miles high down to the emergency
site," he said.
The beam would not be high power and therefore, could not be used as a weapon, Strickland said.
At the same power level as the Sun at noon, the laser beam could provide as much as 300-400 watts per square metre of actual power, so 600 solar panels of four sq m each would provide about one MW of power.
The panels would be light and could be stacked closed together on pallets.
With the currently available technology, the power could be made available for 24 hours, seven days a week and could be delivered and set up in as little as six hours, depending on regional pre-positioning of equipment and organisational readiness, Strickland said.
The system would be relatively automatic and would not require highly trained personnel to operate, he said.
A larger array of such panels could have provided power to pumps at the Japanese nuclear site where almost all of the problems were caused by a lack of electricity, power needed just to pump water, ironically at a power generating plant, he added.
"Since all the equipment would be brought to the site and set up after the disaster, it would be undamaged and ready to provide power," Strickland said.
SSP is ultimately intended to provide a very large alternate supply of base load power to the whole Earth, but current very high launch costs have prevented using this system, Strickland said.
"We believe that using a few specialised emergency satellites would provide a significant benefit to the Earth – covering emergencies - where power can save lives and property," he said.
Only about three such satellites would be needed for the entire earth, two for Europe and Asia and one for the Americas, he said.
"We believe that it will be possible to build and launch such as set of satellites within a decade using a new generation of cheaper rockets now being built," Strickland said adding that emergency power is much more valuable than base load power, so the launch costs would be affordable for the service provided.
For example, a set of three 50 Megawatt satellites would be able to provide one megawatt of emergency power to 150 sites worldwide simultaneously. Alternately, 10 megawatts each could be provided to 15 sites, such as five in the Americas, five in Europe and five in Asia.
The cost of building and launching these three satellites would be vastly cheaper than the damage and cleanup required after an accident similar to the current one, Strickland said.
This project could also advance the science and development of space solar concept and allow it to be used as a replacement power source and an addition to other energy systems sooner than expected, he said.
When asked whether military programme on the solar power will have some implementing problem affecting such a civil programme, Strickland said the US military has no lock on any technology unless it is a "black program" or unless they funded it.
"This space solar emergency power supply is not 'black' by any means. Everything was openly published on the space solar base supply concept in 2007. I know of no secret programs to build such a system," he said.
Currently there are no funded programmes supporting Space Solar by any US agency to our knowledge, he said.
"Solar power in space is close to infinite," says Bloom, adding "the sooner we begin to tap it, the better off the world will be. And using space solar power for emergencies is an excellent start."
Power From Space to Tackle Fukushima-Like Incidents?
Lalitha Vaidyanathan | Mumbai
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