But even if the money flowed into developing the technology, wild cards would remain. A big one has to do with earthlings’ emotions: specifically, their not-in-my-backyard concerns. Many people today oppose large-scale solar projects because they don’t want acres of glass panels blanketing the landscape. Tomorrow they might oppose the notion of sprawling mesh antennas designed to catch rays of solar electricity beamed down from space. Sky watchers also might object because space-based power stations would be visible as moving points of light.
The concept of harnessing space solar power is generally traced to Peter Glaser, who worked at the consulting firm Arthur D. Little. He came up with it in the late 1960s while doing early work on solar power. He was struck by the fact that spacecraft in the right type of geosynchronous orbit could collect sunshine essentially all the time. In the decades since, attempts to realize the vision have waxed and waned. The enthusiasm has tracked the ups and downs in the price of a more earthly energy source: fossil fuel.
In the early 1970s, spurred by surging oil prices, NASA studied the idea. The United States lost interest a few years later, as oil prices fell.
In the late 1990s, NASA took another look. It concluded that technological improvements in the intervening two decades had made the idea of space solar power more plausible. Soon after that, Japan and Europe ramped up research efforts of their own. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency announced several years ago a goal of supplying solar power from space to hundreds of thousands of Tokyo homes by the 2030s.
In 2009 came a seemingly obscure legal agreement that, among space-solar-power devotees, qualified as liftoff. With the approval of state regulators, California utility PG&E signed a contract with Solaren, a California-based space-solar-power startup. Solaren agreed to provide PG&E later this decade with 200 megawatts of space solar power. That’s about one-quarter the output of a large coal-fired power plant. It would be hardly enough to affect the global energy mix. But, if it materialized, it would help answer the giggles. If Solaren succeeds in supplying the celestial surge, PG&E will pay the company for it. If Solaren fails, PG&E won’t be out any money.
Last May, George Nield, the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, listed space solar power as one of the big things that might emerge from space before the current decade is out. By 2020, he said in a speech, the world might see “a commercial proof of concept space solar power demonstrator that can transmit power from outer space to collection stations on the ground.”
Chapman says it’s time to get going. There’s been “a steady, low-level discussion going on for years and years” about the technology, but little has been built, he laments. “The truth is that all you really need to get the costs down to an acceptable level is to start doing it.”
Action may be on the way. This past November, in a move that raised eyebrows among the space-solar-power set, Chinese officials proposed working with their Indian counterparts on a program to harness space solar power. Some Chinese officials have warned that, if their country doesn’t move fast to develop the technology, other countries—namely the United States and Japan—might seize the best spots first. Space is a big place. But already international authorities have input on where countries put satellites. And a country that wanted to harness lots of solar power from space would want to build its ground-based launch site in a particular region—and to put its space facility in a particular sort of orbit—so it could reliably beam the power back to its own soil.
It’s unclear whether China’s space-power aspirations are just chest-thumping or the makings of a serious technological push. But the rhetoric does evoke memories of the Cold War brinkmanship with the Soviet Union that a half-century ago led the United States to send a man to the moon. Geopolitical rivalry, history suggests, tends to spur action—both in the energy hunt and in the space race.