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Microwaves from the sky

October 21st, 2008 · No Comments

While the share prices are in a terrible funk, solar energy is very much alive and kicking. In fact, ambitions never have been bigger, and all kinds of fancy plans emerge. One is to build places with some of the most intensive sunshine on the planet, North Africa and The Middle East, full of solar cells and build a grid to export the energy to Europe. Another seems even more daring. Solar energy from orbiting satellites..?!

Beamed down in microwaves. It seems an idea coocked up by a nutty professor, but sometimes, nutty professors have thought of things we mortals haven’t. Could it work?


  • Ben Bova, president emeritus of the National Space Society, is once again pitching a perennial favorite: Space-based satellite solar energy collecters in orbit beaming electricity via microwaves to enormous earth receiving stations.
  • The idea has enormous appeal. It’s sort of the STAR WARS of the energy sector. And if the federal government can find money to research the fantasy of “clean” coal, it ought to be able to fund space power satellites (SPS), too.
  • Like “clean” coal, SPS comes with lots of controversy.
  • There’s no doubt satellites could be positioned to collect solar energy 24/7, thereby overcoming solar energy’s earthly challenges of periodicity and intermittency. The big issue is getting the energy to the consumer. A focused microwave beam would fry anything that happened to pass through it. A widely dispersed microwave beam would require a huge field of receivers.
  • Still, the dream – born in the late 60s like so many other impossible dreams, some of which have been realized – lives on.
  • At a cost of $1 or more billion, a payback period of as much as a decade, and unproven technology, financing SPS development will be extremely difficult. Bova proposes government-guaranteed loans and contracts to high-tech private space-enterprises (examples: SpaceX, Virgin Galactic) analogous to air mail-carrying contracts given to companies in the 1920s to drive innovation in flight.
  • Bova: “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 dollars a year…”
  • Bova’s pitch is addressed to the next President: “…Mr. Future President, I believe that you should make it NASA’s primary goal to build and operate a demonstration model SPS, sized to deliver a reasonably impressive amount of electrical power — say, 10 to 100 megawatts — before the end of your second term. Such a demonstration would prove that full-scale solar power satellites are achievable…”

You better not pass through that beam. Microwaves from the sky..

Tags: Solar sector