Obama energy plan could include solar satellites
John Byrne
Published: Friday December 12, 2008

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A not-yet-refined technology is "on the table" as part of President-Elect Barack Obama's plan for American energy independence -- solar collecting satellites that beam power back to earth.

The idea of solar power generating satellites recently appeared on Obama's transition website change.gov. Obama officials haven't publicly embraced the concept, and the change.gov site is aimed at being a place for Americans to "have a place at the table," but the technology has been given serious enough treatment to warrant mainstream media attention.

"Beaming solar power from space back to Earth using lasers or microwaves is still a far-out idea, requiring advances in technology and cost reductions that are far from certain and, in any case, likely to take decades to develop," the Wall Street Journal noted Friday. There are legions of skeptics, and Obama transition officials havenít officially embraced the solar-power initiative.

"But some transition team members are known to look favorably on the general idea," the paper added. "A spokesman for the transition didnít respond to email requests for comment."

Real-world tests are years away, and the technology could take decades to develop. But the idea has received favorable attention from Pentagon space officials and the Space Frontier Foundation.

While more expensive than conventional power generation, the technology would allow for emergency power in combat zones and areas affected by natural disasters.

"The concept of using lasers to connect satellites to the ground may have a science-fiction connotation, but European and American scientists have shown the feasibility in laboratories for years," the Journal adds. "The Pentagon wonít confirm widespread industry reports that it already has tested some prototype laser links between orbiting satellites. By 2020 or so, the militaryís internal plans project using lasers to zap data at high transmission rates from satellites in space to various ground receivers."

Orbital solar satellites would be extraordinarily expensive, but could become viable should the cost of fossil fuels skyrocket or the demand for renewable energy sources -- with respect to climate change -- becomes imperative.

Last year, the president of the tiny Pacific island country of Palau said he'd be interested in being a testbed for solar satellite discoveries.

"An entrepreneur, Kevin Reed, is proposing a very small demonstration satellite in low earth orbit that would be able to beam enough power down as it passes over every day to power 1,000 homes," Wired reported last December. "The beam would at first be sent to a power station on one of Palau's uninhabited islands and provide direct current that could be used to charge batteries. He is currently looking for the $800 million he would need to fully fund the project.

Wired adds: "Larger systems could be placed in geosynchronous orbit that stay over a single point on Earth continuously and beam down 5 gigawatts of power (as the AP article puts it, "twice the output of the Hoover Dam"). The power would be converted to microwaves for beaming down to Earth. The beams would be "no more powerful than the energy emanating from a microwave oven's door."