China plans a solar power play in space that NASA abandoned long ago


Michael Byers, a professor in the department of political science at University British Columbia Vancouver says the biggest problem for this concept may be a matter of time. Space-based systems might well be possible several decades from now, but Earth-based systems are already catching up to fossil fuels in terms of cost and efficiency. “You can put solar panels just about anywhere. Rooftops are the most obvious location, and in some jurisdictions all new buildings must have solar arrays. Lots of small projects are better than a few big ones, since they provide greater resilience to equipment failures and weather events,” Byers said.

Hopkins said price competition from Earth-based utility generation is a real issue, but not an insurmountable one. As prices fall for solar technology on the ground, they fall for solar that would be used in space as well. And space-based solar — because it can beam electricity anywhere in the world — can take advantage of the big price differential in the utility market.

A space-based solar system can target places like Japan or Hawaii, where electricity prices can be four to five times prices in the mainland U.S. and then can move to lower-cost electricity markets later once the solar project has paid for itself. “That’s the military thinking. The money you are sending to remote military bases can pay for the technology later. There is a return on investment in the future that doesn’t require sending the electricity to Los Angeles today.”

But the detractors remains convinced it is an idea that will remain in the world of Asimov’s stories.

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“The concept of space solar power is and will remain in the realm of science fiction for a long time, maybe forever. Even if China or any other nation decides to build an SBSP demonstrator, it does not mean that it is a good idea and that it makes economic sense to do so,” L de Weck said.

National Space Society director Hopkins said that kind of thinking — coupled with the U.S. government’s inability to think long-term in its planning — may be the biggest risk of all. He said that current views in the U.S. on the topic tend to fall into one of two camps.

“People in the U.S. tend to look at it as, ‘At least the Chinese are doing it, and if the Chinese are doing it, then we are likely to do it at some point because we don’t want them to lead.’ Others are saying, ‘If they get this right and we don’t, we are in big trouble.'” Hopkins added, “One thing the Chinese are really good at is thinking long-term, unlike U.S. thinking, out 50 years about this stuff. They have no problem thinking like that. When I talk to NASA about anything more than 10 years out, they sort of look up in the air and roll their eyes, and I’m not invited back.”



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