Solar Power Satellites could broadcast energy to Earth


October 29, 2008

Solar Power Satellite concept art.

Image via NASA

Solar Power Satellite concept art. Image via NASA

Image Gallery (3 images)

October 29, 2008 Another year of rising oil prices and global warming, another scientist blows the dust off an old renewable energy proposal. Ben Bova, president of the National Space Society, recently published an article in The Washington Post strongly recommending that the next president of the United States commission a US$1 billion solar power satellite from NASA before the end of their second term. The satellite would harness energy directly from the sun and broadcast it back to a receiver on Earth using microwave frequencies.

The theory of wireless power was conceptualized in the late 19th century, but it was all formulas and small-scale lab experiments until Nicola Tesla came along and built the 187-foot high Wardenclyffe Tower. The Tower, which was specially designed to facilitate wireless power and communication, “[had] a grip on the earth so the whole of this globe can quiver” – (those are Tesla’s words; the man barely restrained himself from adding “…you fools!” to the end of every hypothesis). Unfortunately, the popular press didn’t quite share his enthusiasm, and instead dubbed the scheme “Tesla's million-dollar folly." Wardenclyffe Tower was never fully operational, and was destroyed in WWI. However, Tesla did demonstrate the viability of wirelessly transmitting and receiving electricity, and successfully scored patents on many of its applications.

In 1968, the Space Race caused the wireless energy concept to be re-imagined as a means to turn solar energy into electricity and beam it down to Earth. In 1973, Peter Glaser was granted a patent for his power broadcasting system, which involved using a one-square kilometer antenna on a satellite to broadcast power via microwaves to a larger receiver on the ground. The solar power satellite proposal was then kicked around by NASA and the Department of Energy for a few decades, with various feasibility reports usually stating that the technological principles were sound, but the cost was too steep. In his recent Washington Post article, Ben Bova argues that the cost/benefit equation of satellite-beamed power has finally tipped enough to make the SPS actionable. The benefits of the solar power satellite are that once it’s up there, it delivers a constant stream of power to Earth, garnered from an unlimited source. Unlike solar panels here on the ground, its performance is not affected by the weather – and unlike nuclear power and fossil fuels, it produces no waste, and uses a renewable resource. Bova’s proposal involves the construction of a demonstration-model solar power satellite that produces 10 to 100 megawatts. It won’t power much, but it will be the important first step, the proof-of-concept prototype that engages the private sector and encourages government investment. A full, mile-long model, according to Bova, would produce five to ten gigawatts of energy – more than enough for California’s 4.4-gigawatt appetite.

Just the act of building the first one, says Bova, would be enough to jump-start the world into wide-scale development. It may sound overly optimistic, but governments are already investing tens of billions of dollars in nuclear power. If SPS demonstrates a cost-effective yield, then countries already considering it, like Japan, might hasten their development. It seems strange that an idea that has existed for 40 years, which uses century-old scientific theory and existing technology, which alleviates an environmental problem we have known about for decades, and eases the increasing political and financial burden of the fossil fuel economy, has been repeatedly put on ice because of a cost that is still a fraction of what governments spend on military aims. When the idea was first shot down, and Tesla came to grips with losing Wardenclyffe Tower, he stated (in a long rant, but one worth reading):

"It is not a dream, it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive — blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!...Perhaps it is better in this present world of ours that a revolutionary idea or invention instead of being helped and patted, be hampered and ill-treated in its adolescence — by want of means, by selfish interest, pedantry, stupidity and ignorance; that it be attacked and stifled; that it pass through bitter trials and tribulations, through the strife of commercial existence. So do we get our light. So all that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combatted, suppressed — only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle."

After more than a century, it’s possible that Tesla’s wireless power will finally emerge. And if the next US President does take Bova's advice, it's possible that it will combat our energy problems, and environmental problems, at the same time.

Kyle Sherer


We would be much better off spending those billions on terrestrial renewables. A mix of solar, wind, wave, sea current and tidal power could give us all the power we need. Using a variety of sources would mean that not all of them are likely to be offline at the same time.

Is it fair to call Ben Bova a scientist? He's a writer who certainly knows a lot about science, but that doesn't necessarily make him a scientist anymore than anyone who knows a lot about art is an artist.


I love the idea, but until they come up with a way to get things into space cheaply, I do not see it happening. I wish the article would speak about the life cycle of the solar arrays. Heat dissipation? How high would the orbit be? Would the array stay in one spot and transmit for a few hours a day after storing the energy? If it rotated with the planet how would it ensure it was facing the sun all the time? The article is a nice blub, but I want to be educated abut the technology....

Considering the amount the U.S. is spending in Iraq each month, a billion dollars is chump change to prove out a technology people have been wondering about for decades. Can it be done? Does it work? If it does, 100 MW of continuous energy, 24 hours a day for twenty years (expected lifetime of your average power plant), at a par value of US$75 per megawatt (the current energy forward value curves put energy at that value within a few years) works out to around US$1.3 billion. Not much of a payback, but not a money loser, either.


'Spirit_of_76' asks "Is it fair to call Ben Bova a scientist? He's a writer who certainly knows a lot about science, but that doesn't necessarily make him a scientist..." Fair question, superficially, but if WE are to DO science --and that's what REALLY defines a 'scientist'-- we need to go deeper. When I interfaced with Carl Sagan (at U.C. Berkeley on the Viking project in the '70's,) he lamented his (possibly jealous?) colleagues' characterization as a 'mere popularizer, not a REAL scientist' precisely because he translated complex concepts into simpler but accesible terms for those outside our math-speak priesthood.

Similarly, on this precise subject of solar and alternative energy (exactly 25 years ago in San Francisco, at the 100th Anniversary of the AAAS,) I was alternate on a panel with Ben Bova (including none other than Cy Ramo himself) -- and Bova more than held his own as well as the respect of the whole panel, all recognized scientists. Significantly, after Ramo deftly and drolly computed the mortality/morbidity figures for roof-top solar collectors, "given existing ladder technology for necessary monthly cleaning in urban atmospheres," a sincere but non-science-trained questioner asked "Why convert the energy to electricity and beam it down as [dangerous] microwaves? Why not just put giant [parabolic] mirrors in geosynchronous orbit and reflect sunlight to a single point on earth?"

None of us could readily explain without arc-cotangents of the 1/2-degree angle subtended by the sun from earth orbit, but Ben stepped into the breach and shed instant illumination without scorching naivete or burning out enthusiasm. Now retired from medicine, science and technology to fulfill a vow to teach high school, I continue to admire (and emulate) the unique gifts of Asimov, Bova and Clark as parallel to Alpher, Bethe and Gamov in my list of unwitting but witty mentors.

Ask any practicing scientist whether s/he was/is influenced by science fiction... but don't be surprised by the answer.

Brian J. Boyle
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