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Posted: June 10, 2014

The futurist: Power in space

Looking to the skies for long-term answers

Thomas Frey

Earth’s appetite for power continues to grow. Since the 1960s, power consumption has quadrupled around the globe, with many countries opting to build large oil and coal plants to meet the demand.

But for Japan, a burgeoning economy without large oil and coal reserves, after the Fukushima disaster occurred, an in-depth review concluded the most viable long-term strategy was to focus on spaced-based power systems.

For this reason, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) recently announced its 25-year plan to build the world's first 1-gigawatt power plant in space.

The vision of harvesting solar power from space and beaming it to earth has been around ever since Dr. Peter Glaser first proposed it in 1968. After considerable research in the 1970s, scientist concluded it wasn’t a viable concept just yet because technology hadn’t advance enough. The materials were far too heavy, and it would have required over 100 astronauts working with thousands of crude robots to create it.

Since then, technology has advanced in countless ways, not only making it doable, but for Japan, making it the best available option for controlling its own destiny.

What most people don’t realize is that solar panels in space are 10 times more efficient than those on earth because there are no day-night cycles, seasonal variations, or weather issues to contend with.

But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Many other countries won’t be comfortable with Japan having the world’s only expertise in building space-based power stations. Once the first one proves successful, it will become faster and cheaper to launch the next 10, or even 100 of them.

With Japan throwing down the gauntlet, they are effectively forcing China, Russia, and the U.S. to compete in an entirely new kind of space race. Here are a few thoughts on the massive implications of this JAXA announcement. 

Beam Me Down Scotty

I'm sure many of the scientists are already imagining what it will look like, peering out over Tokyo Bay and seeing a man-made island in the harbor that is 2 miles across. The island itself will be glistening from the massive net studded with billions of tiny rectifying antennas designed to convert microwave energy into DC power.

Next to the antennas is a large substation that sends vast amounts of power through an underwater cable to Tokyo, to help keep the factories of the Keihin industrial zone humming and the neon lights of Shibuya shining bright.

No, you won’t be able to see the most impressive part, neither the giant solar collectors in geosynchronous orbit nor the beaming microwaves, coming down to the island from 24,000 miles above Earth.

Space-based power stations have been the subject of research and a common theme among the sci-fi authors for decades. But it is now very close to becoming a reality, at least within most of our lifetimes.

The 25-Year Plan

Over the next 25 years, Japan is anticipating a number of technology breakthroughs to set the stage for a series of ground and orbital demonstrations leading to the development of their first 1-gigawatt commercial system in space. This is about the same output as a typical nuclear power plant.

Every year of technological advancement brings a drop in the cost of building it. In the 1980s, the cost was estimated to be over $1 trillion. But by 2030, the cost is anticipated to drop to the $20 billion range.

Painted in broad-brush strokes, here is JAXA's 25-year plan:

BASIC RESEARCH PHASE (2014–2020)

  • 2014 – Demonstration on the ground
  • 2017 – 1-kW satellite experiment

DEVELOPMENT PHASE (2021–2030)

  • 2021 – 100-kW satellite experiment
  • 2024 – 2-MW satellite experiment
  • 2028 – 200-MW demonstration power station 

COMMERCIAL PHASE (2031–2040)

  • 2031 – 1-GW full-scale power station
  • 2037 – Commercial space-based solar power industry (one launch per year).

Powering the Entire Solar System

At first blush, most will imagine a space-based solar array powering our energy hungry businesses on earth, but that’s only part of the equation. It can be used to power an entire solar-system of devices, that will grow exponentially over the coming decades much like an Internet of Things in space.

It has the potential not only to continuously deliver limitless amounts of solar energy to markets on Earth, but also to power itself as well as a range of future space applications.

Historically, space missions have been “power paupers” – constrained in design by the limitations of power and the high cost of getting that power. For this reason a wide range of R&D projects have been shelved simply because of their excessive power requirements.

Mastering Six Critical Disciplines

The JAXA power station is estimated to weigh more than 10,000 metric tons and when fully deployed, stretch several miles across. To construct and operate an electricity-generating satellite, JAXA will have to demonstrate mastery of six critical disciplines:

  1. Wireless power transmission
  2. Space transportation
  3. Construction of large structures in orbit
  4. Satellite attitude and orbit control
  5. Space-based power generation
  6. Power management

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

Hello Sir, Great stuff, the future looks bright (literally). The one concern I have is what will the microwaves do to the atmosphere that protects our planet? Granted, one will not be detrimental, but what about hundreds when other countries do "their thing?" I've been in telecom as an engineer, technician, and various levels of management for (42) years, and no, I won't stand in the line of site of a microwave tower! Good article, I always enjoy your papers, they're the "best of the bunch!" By Leo Segura on 2014 06 10
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