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Solar Potential

February 5, 2016

A recent news story by McClatchy Tribune trumpeted an announcement from the Air University at Mawwell Airforce Base about power from space.

A team from the Air University has proposed installing PV solar panels in space to capture the energy from the sun and transmit it to Earth. The team is in line to receive a $10 million grant from the Department of Defense for the team’s proposal, “Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill.

The McClatchy story didn’t explain why this proposal was any different from those made over a decade ago.

While the science fiction aspect of electricity from space dates back to Asimov in the 1940s, the concept has been given serious study by NASA and others.

The 2007 report by DOD’s, National Security Space Office’s Advanced Concepts Office identifies the issues.

Quoting from the DOD report:

“The magnitude of the looming energy and environmental problems is significant enough to warrant consideration of all options, to include revisiting a concept called Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) first invented in the United States almost 40 years ago. The basic idea is very straightforward: place very large solar arrays into continuously and intensely sunlit Earth orbit (1,366 watts/meter squared), collect gigawatts of electrical energy, electromagnetically beam it to Earth, and receive it on the surface for use either as base load power via direct connection to the existing electrical grid, conversion into manufactured synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, or as low‐intensity broadcast power beamed directly to consumers.”

Graphic from National Security Space Office Report

Graphic from National Security Space Office Report

Like all futuristic proposals, including those put forward by devotees of Concentrating solar and PV solar installations on the earth itself, translating the huge amount of energy available from the sun into a practical method for collecting and distributing the energy is glossed over.

The proposal from Air University,”Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill” would appear to be another politically motivated attempt to glamorize solar power rather than address the real issues highlighted in the DOD report. (See )

The DOD report phrased the question as follows:

“Can the United States and partners enable the development and deployment of a space‐based solar power system within the first half of the 21st Century such that if constructed could provide affordable, clean, safe, reliable, sustainable, and expandable energy for its consumers?”

The military could, of course, use power from space even if it cost several dollars per kWh, because getting energy to remote areas of the world can cost much more in terms of money and lives.

Unfortunately, the report merely proposed additional studies, but a few major obstacles stood out as to why spaced based solar remains impractical at this time.

These obstacles were:

  • The cost of installing the infrastructure in orbit, i. e., the ability to launch and assemble solar panels into structures the size of several football fields
  • The ability to safely transmit the energy to Earth using lasers or microwaves
  • Protecting the solar panels from solar storms
  • Preventing any adversary from destroying the panels which would cut off the supply of electricity from space

The last two are critical if we were to rely completely on obtaining our electricity from space. Space based power actually compounds the threat that already exists if the grid were destroyed by a super solar storm, such as the Carrington Event, or by a nuclear EMP or cyber attack.

The media, such as McClatchy, try to glamorize solar power, rather than doing a professional job of reporting, not only the obvious story, but also reporting on what’s behind the story.

The government has already spent approximately $100 million investigating space based solar power. Shouldn’t it spend some time and effort resolving the obvious four issues identified above, before spending another $10 million of tax payer money on a politically motivated proposal such as the Air University’s “Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill?”


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See Chapter 9, of Nothing to Fear: The Utility Death Spiral.

Nothing to Fear is available from Amazon and some independent book sellers.
Link to Amazon:

Book Cover, Nothing to Fear

Book Cover, Nothing to Fear

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob bradley permalink
    February 5, 2016 11:33 am

    This is nice Donn.

    Can I reprint as a MasterResource post next week?

    If so, do you have a link for this sentence: The government has already spent approximately $100 million investigating space based solar power.


    – Rob

  2. February 5, 2016 3:26 pm

    I can’t see how it could possibly work when putting stuff in orbit costs as much as gold per kg. negative EROEI guaranteed. This people should be given a laugh on their face, not money

    • February 5, 2016 4:23 pm

      I agree. Maybe sometime in the future, but now is not the time to spend tax payer dollars on this project.

  3. Don Shaw permalink
    February 7, 2016 12:09 am

    As one who has a grandson serving as a Marine on a ship in the middle of the mess in the middle east, I find it offensive that the DOD is wasting defense funds on such impractical concepts when the military is severely underfunded . Is there anyone in the DOD who has a shred of common sense?
    I posted the comments below after finding that the US Navy spends up to $424/gallon for “green” biofuel for our ships at a time fuel is much cheaper. The biofuel supply is limited and comes mostly from the Administrations favorite recipients of subsidies to build plants.

    “Is global warming/climate change more important than our defense? This is happening while our military capability is at an all time low in the number of ships, etc due to cuts in defense spending and the Iranians and others are challenging or capturing our military. Meanwhile our troops have to pay for their uniforms and food while others get rich selling expensive biofuel’s to the military! I don’t think the quoted subsidy noted includes the actual purchase cost of biofuel from the industries it subsidizes (Over $25 a gallon and up to $424 per gallon).

    Also the secretary of the Navy makes this false claim while the US industry production of fossil fuels due to fracking on private lands is at an all time high and fuel prices at a recent all time low. “Mabus said that if the U.S. doesn’t develop home-grown alternative energies, it might not be able to afford to fuel any ships it builds.”
    Is his statement believable?”

    • February 7, 2016 9:32 am

      Thanks. Excellent comments. Secretary Mabus is not credible … and his actions supporting the administration’s myopic view of climate change is endangering our military. You grandson needs our support, and also our prayers and thanks.

  4. Don Shaw permalink
    February 8, 2016 12:55 am

    Another irresponsible mandate for the military

    “The Pentagon is ordering the top brass to incorporate climate change into virtually everything they do, from testing weapons to training troops to war planning to joint exercises with allies.

    A new directive’s theme: The U.S. Armed Forces must show “resilience” and beat back the threat based on “actionable science.””

    “It says the military will not be able to maintain effectiveness unless the directive is followed. It orders the establishment of a new layer of bureaucracy — a wide array of “climate change boards, councils and working groups” to infuse climate change into PROGRAMS, plans and policies.”

    More at website

    • February 8, 2016 10:04 am

      Thanks. It’s unfortunate the military must conform to the President’s obsession with climate change, though it’s what the constitution requires. However, the President is putting our men and women in the military at risk.

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