The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SSP illustration
Cooperation between the United States and India on space solar power could benefit both countries, as well as the relationship between them. (credit: © Mafic Studios Inc.)

Should India and the US cooperate on space solar power?

If the US has a serious medium-term need for a very large new source of clean energy, India needs it even more. While there is a lot of talk about terrestrial solar, wind, and geothermal power as alternatives to coal—which seems to be currently politically unacceptable—or nuclear—which has its own set of political problems but whose greatest drawback may simply be the length of time it takes to build new power plants—space solar power (SSP) may be the only alternative that could be made to work before the major global electricity demand crisis hits, around the year 2050.

In Washington lots of people have complained that the Obama Administration has so far not given the India-US relationship the attention it deserves. Others are waiting to see if this relatively new team is going to follow up on the progress made by both the Clinton and the George W. Bush Administrations in building a real friendship between the two democratic giants. The one area in which there seems to be movement on, though, is a “renewable energy partnership”.

If the US has a serious medium-term need for a very large new source of clean energy, India needs it even more.

From India’s standpoint the government does take the energy problem very seriously. While they connect it with the question of climate change, they have made it clear that they are not willing to inflict economic pain on their people in order to appease those in the West who are demanding that they cease their current drive to climb out of mass poverty in the name of the environment. Former External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee made this clear when he spoke at the Asia Society in New York last year and said, “It is therefore completely one sided to target countries like India, whose emissions though modest are rising, but fail to bring to account those who have been responsible for more than 70% of the accumulated emissions in the atmosphere.”

Recognizing the potential weakness of a case based strictly on the question of climate change, Mukherjee was wise enough to add that “even if there were no climate change arguments, considerations of energy security alone would require a medium to long term strategy of implementing a strategic shift from fossil fuels to non fossil fuels.” He called for a “major R&D effort to develop applications that that can provide convenient, cost effective large scale applications of solar energy.”

Any analysis of the potential of terrestrial solar energy in India or elsewhere runs up against the awesome size of the future demand for power. Photovoltaic panels on rooftops and solar water heaters all make excellent small-scale contributions to the solution, but they cannot by any stretch of the imagination fulfill the requirements of a huge growing economy like India’s. Only SSP, which operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year after year, can hope to meet this need.

Fortunately both India and the US have space programs and technologies that could, if developed together and possibly with other interested nations such as Japan, bring SSP systems into service sometime late next decade or the early 2020s. With its commitment to develop a new low cost reusable spaceplane, the India Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is already working on one of the key technologies needed for an SSP system.

Indian participation in both private and public SSP programs should be welcomed by the US. Ehe US government should make an effort to facilitate this by helping with visas and work permits for qualified Indian scientists and engineers. Recent moves towards reforming the notorious International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) should include ensuring that SSP systems are covered by the Department of Commerce regulators rather than by the State Department, which has gained such a sorry reputation in this area.

Safe, clean, abundant energy from the Sun is not an impossible dream.

In the near term the new Indo-US renewable energy partnership would seem to be the right place to start this collaboration. Together the partners can identify what will be needed in the way of technological and scientific investments over the next decade in order to make SSP a reality. India has lots of talent that can be committed to this effort and so does the US. In fact, the kind of ambitious idealism that we saw at NASA during the Apollo years could be engendered by this goal.

Safe, clean, abundant energy from the Sun is not an impossible dream. The technology has not been perfected and the need for new, low-cost Earth-to-orbit transportation systems is as urgent as ever, but there are no requirements for any scientific breakthroughs.

The Space Solar Power Study released by the US National Security Space Office (NSSO) in October 2007 found that since the 1977 “Reference” study, there had been:

(a) improvements in PV [photovoltaic] efficiency from about 10% (1970s) to more than 40% (2007); (b) increases in robotics capabilities from simple tele-operated manipulators in a few degrees of freedom (1970s) to fully autonomous robotics with insect-class intelligence and 30–100 degrees of freedom (2007); (c) increases in the efficiency of solid state devices from around 20% (1970s) to as much as 70%–90% (2007); (d) improvements in materials for structures from simple aluminum (1970s) to advanced composites including nanotechnology composites (2007)

The 2007 NSSO study showed just how far the technology had come and why space solar power is now a more viable alternative for very large-scale power generation than ever before. India and the US are natural partners in the development of this technology and the opportunity provided by the planned renewable energy partnership is a perfect place to begin.