Mitsubishi and IHI are joining a research group containing 14 other countries to tackle the daunting task of getting Japan’s four square kilometer solar space station up and running in the next three decades. By 2015, the Japanese government hopes to test a small satellite decked out with solar panels that beams power through space and back to Earth.
There are still a number of hurdles to work through before space-based solar power becomes a reality though. Transportation of the solar panels into space is too expensive at the moment to be commercially viable, so Japan has to figure out a way to lower costs. Even if costs are lowered, solar stations will have to worry about damage from micrometeoroids and other flying objects. Still, space-based solar operates perfectly under all weather conditions, unlike Earth-based panels that are at the mercy of the clouds.
Japan isn’t the only country in the race for space power. Solaren and California’s Pacific Gas and Electric utility are working together on a project to deliver 200 megawatts of power from space over a 15-year period that begins in 2015.
Mitsubishi, IHI to Join $21 Bln Space Solar Project (Update1)
By Shigeru Sato and Yuji Okada
Sept. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and IHI Corp. will join a 2 trillion yen ($21 billion) Japanese project intending to build a giant solar-power generator in space within three decades and beam electricity to earth.
A research group representing 16 companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., will spend four years developing technology to send electricity without cables in the form of microwaves, according to a statement on the trade ministry’s Web site today.
“It sounds like a science-fiction cartoon, but solar power generation in space may be a significant alternative energy source in the century ahead as fossil fuel disappears,” said Kensuke Kanekiyo, managing director of the Institute of Energy Economics, a government research body.
Japan is developing the technology for the 1-gigawatt solar station, fitted with four square kilometers of solar panels, and hopes to have it running in three decades, according to a 15- page background document prepared by the trade ministry in August. Being in space it will generate power from the sun regardless of weather conditions, unlike earth-based solar generators, according to the document. One gigawatt is enough to supply about 294,000 average Tokyo homes.
Takashi Imai, a spokesman for the Institute of Unmanned Space Experiment Free Flyer, which represents the 16 companies, confirmed the selection when reached by phone in Tokyo.
Mitsubishi Electric gained 0.1 percent to 693 yen at the morning break in Tokyo trading, while IHI fell 0.5 percent to 189 yen and Mitsubishi Heavy slipped 0.3 percent to 384 yen. The benchmark Topix index rose 0.3 percent.
Far, Far Away
Transporting panels to the solar station 36,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface will be prohibitively costly, so Japan has to figure out a way to slash expenses to make the solar station commercially viable, said Hiroshi Yoshida, Chief Executive Officer of Excalibur KK, a Tokyo-based space and defense-policy consulting company.
“These expenses need to be lowered to a hundredth of current estimates,” Yoshida said by phone from Tokyo.
The project to generate electricity in space and transmit it to earth may cost at least 2 trillion yen, said Koji Umehara, deputy director of space development and utilization at the science ministry. Launching a single rocket costs about 10 billion yen, he said.
“Humankind will some day need this technology, but it will take a long time before we use it,” Yoshida said.
The trade ministry and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which are leading the project, plan to launch a small satellite fitted with solar panels in 2015, and test beaming the electricity from space through the ionosphere, the outermost layer of the earth’s atmosphere, according to the trade ministry document. The government hopes to have the solar station fully operational in the 2030s, it said.
In the U.S., the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the energy department have spent $80 million over three decades in sporadic efforts to study solar generation in space, according to a 2007 report by the U.S. National Security Space Office.
Japan plans massive solar power station to orbit earth
Sep 3rd 2009 at 7:00PM
Apparently, not any longer. The consortium of dozens of Japanese companies will be led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, says Bloomberg. They plan to spend $21 billion on R&D over four years before hitting launch dates for the first stage of the project in 2015. The target completion date is 2030 or beyond. To put this in perspective, 1 gigawatt of power would be enough to power up to 750,000 U.S. homes for a year at current consumption rates.
The technology for capturing solar power as electricity remains beyond the bleeding edge. The process would work this way: First, a satellite equipped with photovoltaic cells would capture the sun's rays and convert them into electricity. Then, the satellite would convert that electricity into radio waves to transport it to earth, where the radio waves would then be converted back into electricity.
Two years ago, a government-funded think tank, the National Space Society, laid out a plan to generate 10 megawatts of space-based power with an outlay of $10 billion. Several firms have filed patents in the area, but no working demonstrations have been performed to date. One of the companies, PowerSat, is planning to raise $100 million to launch a 10-kilowatt power generation satellite within the next three years.
Regardless of the obstacles, producing power in space has been a pipe dream for both power hounds and astrogeeks for decades. Outside the earth's atmosphere, the sun's energy is several times stronger. Satellites that capture power would never be in the dark, either, as opposed to solar power installations on terra firma. And carbon emissions is not an issue, nor are zoning, real estate prices, or environmental impact assessments.
At least one large public utility, California's PG&E (PGC), is taking the idea very seriously. In April 2009, PG&E petitioned state regulators for a 200-megawatt power purchase agreement with SolarEn, one of the three startups that are seeking to build space-based power generation capabilities. The Japanese plan would be five times as large as the Solaren-PG&E deal and would likely pave the way for a new generation of space-based power plants. Should it happen, the completion of this massive orbiting power monster would be a giant step for man and mankind alike.