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The Nation

Orbiting solar panels' day may be near

A study finds oil prices could finally make space power plants feasible.

October 11, 2007|Theo Milonopoulos | Times Staff Writer

Beam it down, Scotty.

A new federal study released Wednesday concluded that continued increases in oil prices may finally make the generation of solar power in orbit economically competitive.

The report urged the government to sponsor a demonstration of the technology to spur private investment in the concept.

The orbiting power plants would reduce the nation's dependence on imported oil and help reduce the production of carbon dioxide that is contributing to global warming, according to the report led by the National Security Space Office, part of the Department of Defense.

"This is a solution for all mankind," said former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, chairman of the spaceflight advocacy group, ShareSpace Foundation. Aldrin joined a group of other space advocacy organizations to unveil the report in Washington.

Since the Space Age began 50 years ago, scientists have dreamed of launching acres of photovoltaic cells into orbit and beaming the electricity electromagnetically to Earth's surface but have stumbled over the project's high cost and the technical difficulties.

The report estimated that in a single year, satellites in a continuously sunlit orbit could generate an amount of energy nearly equivalent to all of the energy available in the world's oil reserves.

Mark Hopkins, senior vice president of the National Space Society, said space-based solar energy could generate so much power that it could transform the United States from an energy-importing country into an energy-exporting nation.

"It is the largest energy option which is available to us today in the sense that it would derive more power potentially than all of the other power sources combined," Hopkins said.

NASA and the Department of Energy have spent $80 million in the last three decades to study space-based solar energy, but the effort faded in the mid-1990s.

Critics have charged that ground-based solar energy is more economical. But putting the solar factories in space would allow them to operate 24 hours a day and would eliminate interference by clouds and adverse weather, said Charles Miller, director of the Space Frontier Foundation.

Miller said that, even if implementation started immediately, it would take at least 10 years before energy could be produced in significant quantities, and it would take several generations of satellites to reduce the cost of the technology to a reasonably low level.

But he said: "Our energy dependence and potential global warming problems are long-term problems. . . . So on a time scale, this solution matches up if we start investing now."

--

theo.milonopoulos @latimes.com

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