Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Plan to Move Power Plants into Orbit

Space Canada, in cooperation with the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) has just announced the final speaker line up for their 2009 Symposium on Solar Powered Satellites being held next week at the Ontario Science Centre.

The symposium, hosted by Bob Macdonald (the national science correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and host of CBC Radio One’s “Quirks and Quarks”) is expected to attract an international assortment of academics, economists, global warming pundits and space focused legal experts along with representatives from provincial, federal and international government and non-government organizations plus dedicated space activists and quite a few others.

Speakers include Dan Fortin (the CEO of IBM Canada), Marc Garneau (MP for Westmount-Ville-Marie), Dr. Robert Zee (Manager of the UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory), John Mankins (former NASA and CalTech Jet Propulsion Laboratory policy guru) and others.

So what will they be talking about, you may ask?

They'll be talking about space based solar power (SBSP) which, according to Wikipedia is "a system for the collection of solar power in space, for use on Earth. SBSP differs from the usual method of solar power collection in that the solar panels used to collect the energy would reside on a satellite in orbit, often referred to as a solar power satellite (SPS), rather than on Earth's surface."

Here's a video from futurist David Houle attempting to provide some context for the overall thrust of the space power advocates in Canada, the US and elsewhere.

Here's a higher level discussion on space solar power provided by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The idea does have quite a few international backers at this point and yesterday, Bloomberg even ran this news report announcing that Mitshubishi Electric Corp. and IHI Corp. will be joining a $21 Billion Japanese initiative to develop the technology needed to build a space solar power satellite. The effort is being coordinated through the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

I am personally a little cautious about the financial, the engineering and the political difficulties surrounding an effort of this nature. I remember how even Werner Von Braun was wrong once in awhile, especially when he advocated the immediate creation of large expensive space infrastructures to do things that could best be done in a smaller scale way.

But I would also like to see what the organizers, attendees and participants at the symposium have to say when it's concludes.

They may perhaps know things that I don't.

1 comment:

  1. Hi all ...

    While there always is a chance (and if I'm the subject, then an absolute probability) of "they may perhaps know things that I don't" ... still, I think that there are three ways of looking at the implementation of orbital solar power that simply knocks it out of contention compared to the alternative ground based system(s).

    FIRST, for a given area of collector area, at best, a space-based array only collects about 3x the kilowatt-hours per square meter, compared to a diurnally limited ground system. That's great!

    The counterside is that the cost-per-kilogram to loft the orbital array far, far exceeds whatever costs exist for mounting environmentally stabile ground-based systems. Its quantifiable - and on other fora, I've quantified it. Even in the most ballyhooed form, the orbital system costs at LEAST AS MUCH per kilowatt-hour to transform from prime silicon solar cells (unmounted) to a big old array picking up and delivering power.

    SECOND, even if accounting-wise the fabrication, packaging, deployment and "loft" cost was equal on a per-kilowatt-hour-delivered basis, everything about mega-projects in space is (b)leading edge: the costs in reality will be triple to quintuple whatever the enthusiastic protagonists quote. Every space project - including the Apollo program - was triple-to-quintuple original careful, thoughful estimates. So, there goes the "break even" equation.

    THIRD, the political ramifications of building a big space-based system are stultifying: while the environmental groups might be neutral (I can imagine as many "for" as "against"), the sourcing of such a ginormous project to a few old-boy suppliers (as opposed to 3x as much real-estate in silicon split between dozens of extant suppliers) would be hell to overcome.

    FOURTH, the project, being first, gigantic, second, being a huge infrastructure stretch, would need to have 30+ year funding in order to get it to happen. A proof-of-concept would need to be lofted, then years later, a pilot project, then years later, the superstructure for a much larger project, and all the ensuing time delays, cost overruns.

    BUT THESE NOTWITHSTANDING, orbital photopower is breathtakingly sexy, incredibly bequeathed with endless opportunities, things for kids and college students to consider, strive for, accomplish. It most certainly could become one of the most empowering and enabling "Great New Ideas" that has hit the Western world, well, since the Space Race itself.

    So, I'm for it.

    MEANWHILE, I think that it should be kept on the back-burner, on par with say, SoHo, or IRIDIUM, or any of the super-mega projects that gradually (glacially) actually get through the unalterably required pilot-feasibility project studies and launches.

    AND THE SAVINGS from not "going big" should just as immediately be invested in paving huge swathes of the Great Southwest Desert in township sized conventional Solar Voltaic or Solar Thermal installations ... accompanied by a politically supported doctrine of changing our energy use from "peak at day, but try to use cheaper power at night" to "Peak-peak-peak in the day, baby!", and let the "energy storage problem", in context, simply be solved by not requiring as much power in the night zone! THAT, and of course traversing the country from SouthWest to NorthEast with a brand new, 100 kiloamp, 500 kilovolt bipolar DC delivery bus ("The Gigatie", able to handle 100-200 GW or more) , eventually to be connected to the West Coast Intertie, and whatever serves the purpose in the East, South and Texan quadrants. If eventually the orbital solar comes to fruition, it should just beam down its gigawatts towards the "center of the X", and tap onto the Gigatie. Mo'powa is betta'powa.