Message on Space Solar Power to the next President of the United States

See also: Video message to the next President

From Ben Bova

[Note: This is the original version of a guest editorial that appeared in an edited version, An Energy Fix Written in the Stars, in the Washington Post, October 12, 2008. Ben Bova is president emeritus of the National Space Society and the author of nearly 120 nonfiction books and futuristic novels, including Powersat, a novel about building the first solar power satellite.]

Dear Mr. President-Elect: It’s time to put our space technology to work for the people.

Once you enter the White House you will face enormous problems: an economy in recession, energy prices soaring, global warming that causes climate change and more powerful tropical storms, rising unemployment, terrorism and war.

But you will have an asset that has been overlooked by previous administrations: the powerful technology that we have forged over half a century of space exploration. You can and should use our hard-earned capabilities in space to solve down-to-Earth problems.

Space technology can help to cut our dependence on oil imported from overseas while at the same time generating whole new industries that could create millions of new jobs. Using our space assets properly could make you the most popular President since John F. Kennedy.

Most Americans take our space technology for granted. They watch the Olympics live from Beijing and see hurricanes tracked by satellites, they put GPS systems in their cars, but they believe that our space program is mainly an expensive hobby for an elite community of scientists, with no payback to the average taxpayer. Getting nifty pictures from Mars is neat, but it doesn’t buy any groceries or lower the price of gasoline.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is shelling out some $700 billion per year for foreign oil. Some of this money supports terrorists and dictators such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. With world demand for energy increasing, the cost of imported oil has nowhere to go but up, and the price for gasoline will head toward $10 per gallon during your Administration – unless you use the knowledge and technology we already have in hand to make a meaningful change for the better.

Space technology can help us to do that. And create new jobs, whole new industries, while doing it.

Energy is the key.

If we want to pull our economy out of recession we must stop paying $700 billion a year for imported oil. If we want to save our environment from greenhouse warming and the inevitable climate change and devastating storms that come with it, we must move away from fossil fuels of all kinds and go to clean, renewable sources of energy.

You will have to make some hard choices about energy. Nuclear power doesn’t put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but it has its own problems with radioactive wastes. Hydrogen fuels burn cleanly, but hydrogen is expensive to produce and really difficult to distribute by pipeline. Wind power works in special locations, but most people don’t want huge, noisy wind turbines where they live.

Some have suggested building automobiles that are powered by electricity. The cars would be clean-running, but how will we generate the additional electricity needed to power millions of “plug in” cars? How will we fuel the new powerplants we would need?

Solar energy has long been a favorite of environmentalists. The Sun delivers about a kilowatt per square yard to the ground all across America. Put solarvoltaic cells on your roof and you can generate all the electricity you need.

But only when the Sun is shining. Clouds and night make solar energy a part-time solution, at best. And solar energy cannot supply the base-load needs of factories and densely-populated cities.

This is is where space technology comes in. There is a way to use solar energy for base-load power generation, twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Place the solar cells in space, in high orbits where they are in sunshine all the time.

The Sun beams out 386 billion billion megawatts of energy: that’s 386,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 watts. Enormous energy! For comparison, the total installed electrical power generation capacity of the United States is slightly more than one million megawatts: the Sun emits 386 thousand billion times more.
Of this steady and unfailing outpouring of sunlight, our planet Earth catches less than one part in two billion. There’s plenty of room for improvement!

The concept of the Solar Power Satellite (SPS) was invented by Peter Glaser in 1968. The idea is basically very simple: build large assemblages of solar cells in space where they convert sunlight into electricity, and then beam the electricity they generate to receiving stations on the ground.

The Solar Power Satellite is the ultimate clean energy source. It doesn’t burn an ounce of fuel. Its powerplant is the Sun, 93 million miles away. A single SPS could deliver five to ten gigawatts to the ground. That’s five to ten thousand megawatts. The total electrical generation capacity of the entire state of California is 4.4 gigawatts. One SPS could deliver twice as much electrical power.

With Solar Power Satellites you could cut back our need for imported oil, cut back our need for fossil fuels of all kinds. If this nation moves toward electric “plug-in” automobiles, a few SPSs could provide the increased electrical power we will need.

Since they don’t need any fuel, SPSs would have low operating costs. Conservative estimates have shown that a Solar Power Satellite could deliver electricity to the consumer at a cost of eight to ten cents per kilowatt/hour, which is quite competitive with costs from conventional power generation stations.

And that would be for the earliest SPSs. Operating costs would drop as more orbital platforms are constructed and costs for components such as solarvoltaic cells are reduced. Solar Power Satellites could lower the average taxpayer’s electric bills, even while providing enormously more electricity than we can now can generate.

Solar Power Satellites would be big, a mile across or more. But they don’t require any new inventions. We have the basic technology in hand.

Basically, an SPS needs solarvoltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity and microwave transmitters to beam the energy to the ground. We’ve been using solar cells to power spacecraft since the 1950s. Solar cells are in our pocket calculators, wristwatches, and other everyday gadgetry. You can buy solar cells through the Internet.

Microwave transmitters are also a well-developed technology. There’s one in almost every kitchen in the nation, in the heart of our microwave ovens.

Some people worry about beaming gigawatts of microwave energy to the ground. But the microwave beams would be spread over a wide area, so they wouldn’t be intense enough to harm anyone. Birds could fly through the thinly-spread beams without harm.

The receiving stations would be set up in unpopulated areas, nevertheless. The desert areas of the American southwest would make an ideal location for SPS receivers. You could gain votes in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California!

It’s ironic, but when Solar Power Satellites become commonplace, the desert wastes of the Sahara and the Middle East could become important energy centers even after the last drop of oil has been pumped out of them. SPS receiving stations could also be built on platforms at sea: Japan has already looked into that possibility.

Building mile-wide structures in space will certainly be a challenge, but we have learned how to construct the International Space Station, which is about the size of a football field. We have the basics in hand.

Solar Power Satellites won’t be cheap. It’s been estimated that the construction cost of an SPS will be similar to the cost of building a nuclear powerplant: on the order of a billion dollars.

That money needn’t come from the taxpayers. It could be raised by the private capital market. Oil companies invest that kind of money every year on exploring for new oil fields.

Private investors usually consider three factors before they plunk their dollars into a new venture. First, how big an investment is needed? Second, how risky is the project? Third, how long before I see a return on my investment?

A billion-dollar investment isn’t peanuts, although the private capital market raises that kind of money all the time. The risk involved with building an SPS is considerable, however. Although the basic technologies involved are well-known, space operations are inherently risky. Finally, it could be many years or even decades before an investment in SPS begins to pay off.

How can we get private investors to put their money into Solar Power Satellites?

This nation tackled a similar situation about a century ago, when faced with the problem of building big hydroelectric dams. Those dams were on the cutting edge of technology at the time, and they were risky endeavors that required hefty funding. Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee and others were built with private investment – backed by long-term, low-interest loans guaranteed by the U.S. government.

Those dams changed the face of the American west, providing irrigation water and electrical power that stimulated enormous economic growth. Phoenix and Las Vegas wouldn’t be on the map, except for those dams. The electricity that powered crucial parts of the Manhattan Project atomic bomb program came from those dams.

Solar Power Satellites could be funded the same way, through government-back loans. Not a penny from the taxpayers’ pockets. The federal government has backed such loan guarantees in the past to help troubled corporations such as Chrysler and Lockheed. Why not use the same technique to encourage private investment in Solar Power Satellites?

Moreover, a vigorous SPS program would provide a viable market for the private companies that are developing rocket launchers. Several companies are working on efficient, reliable launch vehicles that can bring down the costs of launching people and payloads into space.

SpaceX Corporation successfully placed a satellite in orbit a few weeks ago with its privately-developed Falcon 1 launch vehicle. Virgin Galactic – the partnership of designer Burt Rutan and British entrepreneur Richard Branson – is developing the SpaceShip Two rocket vehicle that will carry paying customers to the edge of space.

But like most new industries, these and the other private space companies are caught in a conundrum: they need a market that offers a payoff, but no market will materialize until they can prove that their product works.

The fledgling aircraft industry faced this conundrum in the 1920s. The federal government helped to provide a market for them by giving them contracts to deliver air mail. Out of that beginning arose eventually today’s commercial airline industry.

A vigorous SPS program could provide the market that the newborn private space-launch industry needs. And remember, a rocket launcher that can put people and payloads into orbit profitably can also fly people and cargo across the Earth at hypersonic speed. Anywhere on Earth can be less than an hour’s flight away. That’s a market worth trillions of dollar per year. ROI, indeed.

It will take foresight and leadership to start a Solar Power Satellite program. The necessary technologies are at our fingertips; the vision to get the program going is what we need.

That’s why, Mr. President-Elect, I believe you should make it NASA’s primary goal to build and operate a demonstration model SPS before the end of your second term. The “demo” should be sized to deliver a reasonably impressive amount of electrical power to the ground: say ten to 100 megawatts.

Such a demonstration will prove that full-scale SPSs are achievable. With federal loan guarantees, private financing will then take over and build SPSs that will deliver the gigawatts we need to lower our imports of foreign oil and begin to move away from fossil fuels.

Scientists and academics will howl in protest. They want to explore the universe; they don’t care about oil prices or building new industries. Remember, they howled against the Apollo program, too. They wanted the money spent on their projects, not on sending a handful of fighter jocks to the Moon.

What the academics failed to see was that Apollo produced the technology and the trained teams of people that have allowed us to reach every planet in the solar system.

A vigorous SPS program will likewise produce the infrastructure that will send human explorers back to the Moon and on to Mars and beyond. It could also spur young students’ interest in space, science, and cutting-edge technology.

Americans are a frontier people at heart. We have a frontier that begins a scant hundred miles overhead. This new frontier contains more riches of energy and raw materials than the entire Earth can provide.  By using these resources wisely, we can assure prosperity and peace for the world.

Mr. President-Elect, this is an opportunity to write your name in capital letters across the pages of history.

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