Since the 1970s advocates of space colonization have believed that building space power satellites and transporting space based solar power would be the raison d’être of space colonization. However we do not believe that space based solar power (SBSP) will have any future for terrestrial application.
The first reason why SBSP will not be a core export product for Space Settlers, is public acceptance. A central part of all SBSP proposals is microwave transmission of power, although this wouldn’t be dangerous for people, a lot of people are afraid of anything related to radiation. An example, in the Netherlands there is broad concern about the health effects for people living in the neighbourhood of overhead power lines. Given that the Netherlands are a densely populated country, a few million people live within two kilometers from an over head power line. Although no scientific study has ever been able to provide conclusive evidence that living near an overhead power line is actually bad for your health, many people believe it is.
Some space advocates believe that we can “educate” the masses through tv shows like man-made marbles, I think this will be a dead-end. It is quite unlikely that it will be possible to educate the masses in this way. First of all, only a selected group of people actually watch this kind of tv shows, and these people are probably already convinced of stuff like SBSP. Secondly, the stronger one’s beliefs are the harder it will be to change these beliefs. Especially beliefs related to health issues are quite strong and therefore difficult to change.
Changing public opinion is difficult and we believe that space advocacy groups shouldn’t waste their time and funding to attempt to eradicate radiophobia.
Another issue is whether SBSP is actually necessary. Back in the 1970s photovoltaic technology was in its infancy, solar arrays had low efficiencies and were quite expensive. It was in this time that people like Peter Glasser and Gerard O’Neill were proposing to solve the global energy problem (the 1970s were the age of the oil crises). However, since then both the efficiency of solar cells has been improved and their production costs have been decreased.
In order to provide the world with sufficient energy, we need actually a surprisingly small area: some 62,500 square kilometers or about 2.63 percent of the surface area of Algeria. Of course it will be bad idea to concentrate all of the world’s power plants in the Sahara, but we could spread the solar power plant about the world. In the USA, we could cover a great part of Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico with solar arrays, Western Australia is another place suitable for solar power plants, in Latin America Chile’s Atacama desert will be an attractive site.
An exciting development are the so-called solar islands designed by a Swiss company. Oceans cover two-thirds of the surface of the earth, and are exposed to a large portion or our intake of solar power. So it is a logical idea to harvest solar power at sea.
In a previous post we have discussed the future of Japan’s energy supply, in that post I mentioned the possibility of using synthetic fuels:
One way to do this, is by producing hydrogen through electrolysis. But hydrogen has some severe drawbacks. First the very low density of hydrogen gas requires either storage under high pressure or liquefaction to very low temperatures, which might cost more energy than can be delivered. The storage problem of hydrogen is one of the greatest obstacles for the transition to a hydrogen economy.
An alternative for hydrogen would be the production of synthetic fuels through the Fischer-Tropsch process from hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas. CO gas can be obtained by electrolysis of CO2 from the atmosphere or sea water. There is also current research of creating fuels directly from water and CO2. Both methods will produce hydrocarbons, like methane gas [main component of natural gas], or alcohols like methanol. These synthetic fuels can easily be transported and because the synthesized fuels are chemically similar to “mineral” gasoline, they do not suffer from the transition paradox. This is the problem that no one will buy hydrogen cars if there are no hydrogen gas station, but no one will build hydrogen gas station if no one drives hydrogen cars.
There is no reason why the production of synthetic fuels couldn’t be done on solar islands.
For more information about solar islands see:
It is hard to imagine that Space Based Solar Power will ever been accepted by the broad public, due to concerns about radiation. Any effort to change this attitude is probably wasted energy. Further it is questionable whether SBSP is actually a necessary part of the World’s future energy supply.