Picture this: a 6-mile-wide solar-power satellite orbiting 22,000 miles in space. Photo-sensitive panels on the satellite collect light from the sun and turn it into microwave radiation that an antenna beams down to a ground station, where it's converted into enough electricity to power a large city.
Sound like science fiction? Last year, a government study group issued a report that said space-based solar power not only was technically feasible but also offered a potentially clean, renewable source of energy that could significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Solar and wind power on Earth are being harnessed successfully as alternative energy sources. But solar energy from space could generate as much power as all the world's known oil reserves combined, the report stated. It called for a crash program to build a prototype solar-power satellite and ground station over the next decade.
The idea isn't new. It was originally developed by NASA in the 1960s, and it's been revisited periodically by the departments of Energy and Defense. But each time, it was put aside as cost-ineffective. Oil was just $15 a barrel in the 1960s. Last year, when the report was written, oil was $80 per barrel, and today it's $128. No wonder recognition that high oil prices threaten both the U.S. economy and the national security of America is driving renewed interest in this technology.The price tag is daunting. In the 1970s, NASA estimated infrastructure for a complete system could top $1 trillion. The latest report suggests sharing the costs of a prototype with other space-faring nations. That's a gamble worth taking. Nations that can harness the potential of satellite solar power will reap enormous benefits in an era of dwindling fossil fuel supplies, with all that implies for economic growth and national security. Japan, for example, is planning a prototype for 2020. We should be too. This is one space race the United States can't afford to lose.