Just don’t get in between the transmitter and the receiver

Could Space-Based Power Plants Prevent Blackouts?

SpaceDaily also had an article on space-based energy production. Theirs came out on Monday, so it wasn’t a quick reaction to the events on Thursday afternoon. I considered posting on the subject myself after reading it, but didn’t. Now, suddenly, energy is in the headlines again, so here you go.

This is an idea that I’ve been interested in since I was a little kid. When I was about seven or eight I sent away to a number of space-related companies for any literature that they had on space exploration. One of the magazine-sized pamphlets (I think it was entitled The Exploitation of Space) had a number of cool ideas for money-making businesses in space, mostly medical and manufacturing, but one of them had the idea of huge orbiting satellites collecting solar energy and beaming it down to earth. I wish I still had that stuff. I don’t even remember which company it was from, although I remember that most of it was from either Rockwell or Boeing.

When I saw the headline for this article yesterday, my initial thought was that, even if the production wasn’t affected, the real problem in this case seems to be the distribution system’s reaction to whatever happened. However, this article notes the idea that each city (or region – whatever works best) could have it’s own receiver and independent distribution grid. A satellite, or base on the moon, could beam microwaves back to dozens (or hundreds – I have no idea) of seperate locales. Each locale (New York City, for instance) could have its own grid to send the electricity out from the receiver to the light switches. And if technical problems (or terrorists) took down New York’s receiver or grid, Cleveland would be unaffected.

Also, it seems to me that space-based energy production would be make distribution much more simple. Denver needs more power? Increase the beam to Denver. Los Angeles needs more power? Well, increase the beam to LA. North Dakota doesn’t even need electricity? Well, don’t send them any. New York will just take theirs, thank you very much. Perhaps even more important, remote areas (developing third-world nations, Alaska, Siberia, Nepal, Paris, etc.) would have an easier time developing a workable energy system.

I see it as analogous to satellite television compared to cable television. Never mind that the cable companies get their signal from satellites. They distribute their signal over “grids” of wires that must be laid and maintained and upgraded. The signal reaches your house, then your internal network of wires distributes it to all of your televisions wherever you’ve got them. Satellite television, on the other hand, beams the signal to your house without the need of any cables or switches or other hardware. You receive the signal on your dish, then distribute it throughout the house the same way as the old-world cable subscriber. DirecTV wants to add more local channels? Well, launch another satellite. Expensive? Yes, but once the bird is in place, the entire subsciber base has access to the new signals. And if terrorists destroy my neighbor’s dish I can still catch NFL Sunday Ticket in my living room. Your satellite dish is like the microwave receiver on earth, and your house (and its independent network of wires) is like New York City, only not so messy. An overly simplified analogy? Of course. But effective, I think.

It seems to me that anything flying through the beam would be cooked pretty quickly. My eight year-old son had the idea that the receivers could double as gigantic bug zappers if huge lights were used to attract mosquitoes and other pests. He thought it might help with the West Nile virus situation. (Where does he get ideas like that? Must be his mom.)

Anyway, that brings up another idea I’ve had about these things. I don’t really know how intense the beam would be, but the satellites could be used as a horrible weapon against anything within their line of sight. Not only would there be the threat of enemies using their own satellites against us, but our own birds could conceivably be hijacked or hacked and turned on our population centers or crop base. Also, the potential damage from a glitch would be significant. What if an MSBlaster-type event brought down enough of the controling system or the resources it depended on to suspend power deliveries or cause the sats to miss their targets? I beleive there are answers to all these questions, but obviously it isn’t something that can be taken lightly.

Also, the initial cost of constructing and launching the collectors would be staggering. I (of course) doubt our space shuttle system would be up to the task. Maybe it will have to wait on space elevators, which are the other “out there” space technology idea that I’m really intrigued by. However, if anyone has the money to make this happen, it’s the energy companies and Richard Cheney. (Did I just say that?)

Something else to keep in mind is that the sun’s energy, while not infinite, is close enough to infinite for our mortal purposes. Gigantic solar collectors, not hampered by the weather, that pesky atmosphereof ours, or twelve hours of darkness per day, would be able to harness immense amounts of energy and beam it down to us. The supply of energy would be allowed to increase dramatically, which will probably be almost enough to keep up with increasing demand. Things like electric cars would become much more feasible. Environmental pollution, especially that caused by coal-fired power plants, could be decreased significantly. And our dependance on a particular black liquid, most of which is in the Middle East, would fall.

And we will continue to have problems over there for as long as we need that black liquid.