Pamela James: A case for space-based solar power
11:29 AM CST on Friday, February 5, 2010
I'm hardly a rocket scientist, but I've been doing a lot of reading lately about space. As it turns out, we don't have to keep plunging pipes into the earth hoping to land on a patch of Jed Clampett's "Texas Tea," nor anguish over the right moment to lasso a wind gust. And heaven help those who resort to littering our landscape with nuclear runoff to quench our thirst for nonstop power.
But Texas can take a leading role in solving our energy crisis by using what's already above our noggins: space and the sun that inhabits it. It's called space-based solar power.
It's not a new concept. According to Howard Bloom – a New York visionary and founder of The Space Development Steering Committee, composed of a gaggle of real rocket scientists such as former astronauts
Buzz Aldrin and Edgar Mitchell) – we've been using it for nearly 50 years.
The first American commercial satellite, Telstar, was launched in the early '60s. A mere 35 inches in diameter, this space ball beamed solar power back to earth via its photovoltaic panels. The electromagnetic signals it sent are the same ones we use today that guide our GPS straight to Aunt Freda's lake cabin or to a business meeting in Frankfurt. And the same system that sends us late-breaking news from around the world.
It's also big business.
"Harvesting solar energy in space and transmitting it to earth is a quarter-of-a-trillion-dollar industry," explained Bloom by e-mail. "It's called the commercial satellite business."
To scale up this existing business is America's greatest challenge. In fact, civilization may well depend upon it, Bloom insists.
According to a recent study by 25-year Air Force Research Lab veteran James Michael Snead for the Space Development Steering Committee, even if we use every form of energy we have – the "clean" such as wind, earthbound solar and geothermal; or the "dirty" such as oil, gas and nuclear – we'll still run out well before 2100.
"Using earth-bound energy as the main power source takes unconscionable amounts of space," says Bloom, the steering committee's founder. In some cases, at the expense of entire eco-systems.
Wind turbines produce power only when the wind blows. Solar panels work only when the sun shines – a sun that has a habit of disappearing for eight to 12 hours a day.
On the other hand, space-based solar power runs 24/7 and is five times as intense as the sun that beats down on the
Mojave Desert, experts say.
Sure, we have nuclear power. But who wants barrels of highly concentrated radioactive material in their back yard?
It's high time someone comes forward with the courage, the clout and the promotional acumen to see this to fruition. That's where someone like Perot would be perfect. His natural interest in technology and common-sense problem solving, not to mention his ability to get the attention of the media, would make him a good fit to lead a public relations campaign to get this idea rolling.
Our children, our grandchildren and our grandchildren's grandchildren may just darn well depend upon it.
Pamela James is a science co-teacher for McCulloch Middle School in Highland Park ISD and a Dallas-based writer. Her e-mail address is