Monday, June 02, 2008

Unlimited Power?

This weekend I spoke on a panel at the International Space Development Conference in Washington, D.C. The subject of the panel was the business case for Space Solar Power, and while that might sound like a contradiction in terms to most people, it certainly wasn't for the aerospace professionals and space enthusiasts who comprised most of the audience. As alluring as I find this idea, myself, it wasn't easy staying on point that, aside from its many remaining technical challenges, this concept faces tough competition from other energy technologies with similar attributes and lower start-up hurdles. But although the "business case" for "SSP" is still not mature, capturing solar power from space deserves a place in our national R&D agenda, as an important long-term option for producing clean energy.

Since my prior involvement with it in the late 1990s, the context for the development of SSP has changed radically. Energy prices have risen to levels that were virtually unimaginable in 2000, and concerns about climate change have evolved from a scientific investigation and environmental cause célèbre to a major policy issue. Less obviously but more dramatically, a transforming military engaged in two wars sees the potential of SSP to provide a better alternative for battlefield power than delivering generator fuel to forward bases by helicopter--a reality described vividly to the audience by Colonel Paul Damphousse of the National Space Security Office, who recently returned from a second tour in Iraq piloting Marine CH-53 transport helos.

But if the need for SSP seems greater today than it did a decade ago, the obstacles to making it a reality are no less daunting. The nation's Space Shuttle fleet has suffered another loss and is on the verge of retirement, and its planned replacement is years from deployment. The private-sector space ventures that were well-represented at ISDC hold significant promise, but they already have attractive markets for telecom satellites and "space tourism." Advances in photovoltaic conversion efficiency have reduced the size requirement for a solar power satellite, but the same technology makes ground-based solar more competitive. Perhaps the biggest challenge would come from the public's perception of the risks of beaming power from space to the earth in the form of microwaves. Would this be regarded as a benign cousin of ubiquitous radio transmissions, or morph NIMBY into Not In My Sky?

Whatever the practical considerations today, it was tremendously stimulating to be with a group of people who were looking ahead with optimism to a time when SSP and other space technologies would make a larger contribution to life on earth. I was particularly intrigued by an idea from a start-up called Heliosat Corporation to use SSP to develop America's abundant shale oil resources. This plan has apparently captured the interest of the Greater Houston Partnership, and of some of its oil and gas membership. Whatever the technical and economic merits of this application, the model of using relatively small amounts of power from space to leverage a larger ground-based energy source, or to supply a unique market, looks like the right focus for the immediately-foreseeable future. Whether the first demonstration project is beaming power to a Marine Expeditionary Unit in the field or to a remote oil project, no one will invest the kind of money necessary for SSP to make a serious dent in our global energy needs without first seeing the concept turned into tangible reality.

No comments: