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China, with its growing energy needs, could be a major customer of any future space solar power system. (credit: © Mafic Studios Inc.)

China, the US, and space solar power

Now that the National Security Space Office’s (NSSO) space solar power study has been released and shows that the technology is well within America’s grasp, a set of decisions have to be made concerning how the US government should proceed. The idea that the government should fund a series of demonstration projects, as the study recommends, is a good place to start. Another aspect should be to study the impact that this technology will have on the political and economic future of the world.

The biggest factor in world affairs in the next twenty or so years is the rise of China to true great power status. Leaving aside the political vulnerabilities inherent in any communist regime, the greatest danger to China’s future prosperity is its huge need for energy, especially electricity. According to an International Energy Agency estimate, demand for electricity in China will grow at an average annual rate of 4.8% from 2003 and 2025.

At some point within the next twenty or thirty years China will face an energy crisis for which it will be almost certainly unprepared. Only a new source of electrical energy will insure that such a nightmare never happens.

China is already experiencing shortages. The Yangtze Delta region, which includes Shanghai and the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhijiang and contributes almost 20% of China’s GDP, faced capacity shortages of four to five gigawatts during peak summer demand in 2003. In spite of a furious effort to develop new power sources, including dam building and new coal-fired power plants, China’s economic growth is outstripping its capacity to generate the terawatts needed to keep it going.

While China may turn to widespread use of nuclear power plants, the Communist Party leadership is certainly aware of the role that glasnost and the Chernobyl disaster played in the downfall of another Communist superpower. Thus, China may be reluctant to rely heavily on nuclear power plants, at least not without strong safety measures, thus making them more expensive and more time consuming to build. Wind power and terrestrial solar power will not be able to contribute much to meeting China’s demand and certainly not without government subsidies which a relatively poor nation such as China will be reluctant to provide.

At some point within the next twenty or thirty years China will face an energy crisis for which it will be almost certainly unprepared. The crisis may come sooner if, due to a combination of internal and external pressures, the Chinese are forced to limit the use of coal and similar fuels. At that point their economic growth would stall and they would face a massive recession.

Only a new source of electrical energy will insure that such a nightmare never happens. The global repercussions would be disastrous. In the near term the only new source of electric power that can hope to generate enough clean energy to satisfy China’s mid- to long-term needs is space based solar power. The capital costs for such systems are gigantic, but when compared with both future power demands and considering the less-than-peaceful alternative scenarios, space solar power looks like a bargain.

For the US this means that in the future, say around 2025, the ability of private US or multinational firms to offer China a reliable supply of beamed electricity at a competitive price would allow China to continue its economic growth and emergence as part of a peaceful world power structure. China would have to build the receiver antennas (rectennas) and connect them to its national grid, but this would be fairly easy for them, especially when compared to what a similar project would take in the US or Europe when the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) factor adds to the time and expense of almost any new project.

Experiments have demonstrated, at least on a small scale, that such receivers are safe and that cows and crops can coexist with them. However, there are persistent doubts and it would be wise to plan for a world in which rectenna placement on land will be as politically hard as putting up a new wind farm or even a nuclear power plant.

China, like its neighbors Japan and Korea, has a land shortage problem. This may seem odd when one looks at a map, but the highly productive industrial regions of China are confined to a limited coastal area. These areas also overlap with some of the nation’s most fertile agricultural lands. Conflicts caused by hard choices between land use for factories and housing and for food production are now common.

Building the rectennas at sea would help alleviate some of these disputes. China and its neighbors could compete to see who could build the most robust and cost-effective sea-based rectennas. They would also be able to export these large systems: a system that can survive the typhoons in the South China Sea can also handle the monsoons of the Bay of Bengal or the hurricanes of the Caribbean.

Our world’s civilization is going to need all the energy it can get as China and other nations attain Western lifestyles. Clean solar power from space is the most promising of large-scale alternatives.

In spite of the major advances that China has made in developing its own space technology, it will be many years before they can realistically contemplate building the off-Earth elements of a solar power satellite, let alone a lunar-based system. Even if NASA administrator Mike Griffin is right and they do manage to land on the Moon before the US gets back there in 2020, building a permanent base and a solar panel manufacturing facility up there is beyond what can reasonably be anticipated.

If the US were to invest in space-based solar power it would not be alone. The Japanese have spent considerable sums over the years on this technology and other nations will seek the same advantages described in the NSSO study. America’s space policy makers should, at this stage, not be looking for international partners, but instead should opt for a high level of international transparency. Information about planned demonstration projects, particularly ones on the ISS, should be public and easily accessible. Experts and leaders from NASA and from the Energy and Commerce departments should brief all of the major spacefaring nations, including China.

Our world’s civilization is going to need all the energy it can get, especially in about fifty years when China, India, and other rising powers find their populations demanding lifestyles comparable to those they now see the West enjoying. Clean solar power from space is the most promising of large-scale alternatives. Other sources such as nuclear, wind, or terrestrial solar will be useful, but they are limited by both physics and politics. Only space solar power can be delivered in amounts large enough to satisfy the needs of these nations. As a matter of US national security it is imperative that this country be able to fulfill that worldwide demand. Avoiding a large-scale future war over energy is in everyone’s interest.



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