Japan plans massive solar power station to orbit earth

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The system would beam the power back to Earth using radio waves. This sort of system has been discussed in the past, but deemed too pie-in-the-sky. I mean, power stations in space? That’s science fiction, right.

Apparently, not any longer. The consortium of dozens of Japanese companies will be led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, says Bloomberg. They plan to spend $21 billion on R&D over four years before hitting launch dates for the first stage of the project in 2015. The target completion date is 2030 or beyond. To put this in perspective, 1 gigawatt of power would be enough to power up to 750,000 U.S. homes for a year at current consumption rates.
Big solar panel makers Mitsubishi Electric and IHI would supply the necessary photovoltaic arrays. The initial launches of equipment could happen as soon as 2015 — if this project ever takes flight. Obstacles that remain are enormous. For starters, with current rocket technology, transporting the necessary solar panels into space would be prohibitively expensive.

The technology for capturing solar power as electricity remains beyond the bleeding edge. The process would work this way: First, a satellite equipped with photovoltaic cells would capture the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity. Then, the satellite would convert that electricity into radio waves to transport it to earth, where the radio waves would then be converted back into electricity.

Two years ago, a government-funded think tank, the National Space Society, laid out a plan to generate 10 megawatts of space-based power with an outlay of $10 billion. Several firms have filed patents in the area, but no working demonstrations have been performed to date. One of the companies, PowerSat, is planning to raise $100 million to launch a 10-kilowatt power generation satellite within the next three years.

Regardless of the obstacles, producing power in space has been a pipe dream for both power hounds and astrogeeks for decades. Outside the earth’s atmosphere, the sun’s energy is several times stronger. Satellites that capture power would never be in the dark, either, as opposed to solar power installations on terra firma. And carbon emissions is not an issue, nor are zoning, real estate prices, or environmental impact assessments.

At least one large public utility, California’s PG&E (PGC), is taking the idea very seriously. In April 2009, PG&E petitioned state regulators for a 200-megawatt power purchase agreement with SolarEn, one of the three startups that are seeking to build space-based power generation capabilities. The Japanese plan would be five times as large as the Solaren-PG&E deal and would likely pave the way for a new generation of space-based power plants. Should it happen, the completion of this massive orbiting power monster would be a giant step for man and mankind alike.

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