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Space Based Solar Power: Time to Put it on the New US-India S&T Endowment Fund?
Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
02 April 2011

With the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, isn’t it time for India and the US to make serious commitments to Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP)? Japanese crisis has triggered worldwide re-thinking on the feasibility of pursuing nuclear energy to meet growing global energy demands. This has kick-started a debate also in India not only on the safety of nuclear plants but also on other energy options. It is time that India and the United States and the countries around the world looked at an often-overlooked option: SBSP.

The idea of harnessing SBSP as an option originated in the United States some 40 years ago. But it has not been pursued with vigour for a variety of reasons, including possibly the influence of nuclear lobbyists. In simple terms, SBSP is described thus by Lt. Col. Peter Garretson of the US Air Force: "In this concept, very large satellites, the largest ever constructed, made up of kilometers of solar cells, would collect the Sun’s energy where there is no night, and convert it to radio-waves to be beamed to special receiving antenna farms on the ground (called rectennas) about the size of a small airport. The energy is sent in the form of a low energy beam at about 1/6th the intensity of normal sunlight that falls on earth. But because it is a low-energy, non-ionizing wavelength, it is not as dangerous as sunlight with its high energy ultraviolet rays. At the rectenna, the energy is reconverted and sent via the existing electrical grid. Such satellites would necessitate a fleet of re-useable space planes, and as a consequence of economies of scale, reduce the cost of space access a hundred fold, enabling many other applications.2 It is estimated that one kilometre-wide band of geo-synchronous earth bit can produce solar flux to match as much as the total amount of energy produced from all the different recoverable oil reserves on Earth.

The idea was promoted by none other than Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam first at the Aeronautical Society of India (AeSI) and later again at a press conference in Washington DC last year. The initiative is now titled as the Kalam-NSS (National Space Society) Energy Initiative. The Kalam-NSS initiative is an India-US partnership taken up by individuals with long-term expertise in the space realm. Some of the key people involved are, in addition to Dr. Kalam, Mark Hopkins, CEO of the US-based National Space Society and John Mankins, President of the Space Power Association and a veteran of NASA. On the Indian side, there seems to be some official involvement due to the involvement of Dr. T.K. Alex, who is the Director of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Satellite Centre, Bangalore and leader of the Chandrayan-I project.

Speaking in New Delhi in November last year, Dr. Kalam said that "by 2050, even if we use every available energy resource we have, clean and dirty, conventional and alternative, solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, coal, oil, and gas, the world will fall short of the energy we need by 66%. There is an answer. An answer for both the developed and developing countries. This is a solar energy source that is close to infinite, an energy source that produces no carbon emissions, an energy source that can reach the most distant villages of the world, and an energy source that can turn countries into net energy exporter."3 According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the worldwide demand for primary energy increases by 55 per cent between 2005 and 2030 - 1.8 per cent hike per year on average; and for India, the demand is expected to more than double by 2030, growing at 3.6 per cent rate per year.4

With energy demand growing rapidly, the SBSP option offers huge opportunities. Such an option will also be reportedly a cleaner energy option. This option would also significantly augment India’s capabilities in the space domain, which will have far-reaching positive spin-offs in the ever-changing security environment in Asia. This will bring the much-desired focus on the question of technology transfer between India and the US, Japan and Israel.

India has looked at this option for quite sometime. In 1987, the first bit of work was undertaken looking at advanced space transportation system design concepts for cost-effective space solar power. Recently, ISRO is reported to have done some exercise looking at the feasibility of this option and examined three specific configurations. Thereafter, ISRO is believed to have welcomed an International Preliminary Feasibility Study.Unlike terrestrial solar and wind power plants, SBSP is available throughout the year, in huge quantities. It can also reportedly work irrespective of conditions that are a problem for other alternative energy sources such as cloud cover, availability of sunlight, or wind speed.

What has prevented the SBSP from becoming a real option? Is it the enormous cost involved in developing the option or is it an option that never got the popular attention due to the multiplicity of departments involved? Proponents argue that the cost of SBSP should not be compared to the direct costs involved. The cost-benefit analysis needs to be done on a different scale, including the direct and indirect cost of global warming and climate change. Otherwise, the costs of developing this technology may seem exorbitant.

What are the options to meet this cost? Are the Indian and American governments and private sectors willing to make significant investments on the R&D of this technology? The US-India Agreement to establish an S&T Board and an Endowment to carry out research (July 20, 2009) appears to be an ideal basis for new research and development on SBSP. SBSP seems like an ideal candidate because this fund seeks to finance projects on a broad spectrum of issues of mutual benefit such as biotechnology, health and infectious diseases, advanced materials and nanotechnology science, clean energy technologies, climate science, basic space and atmospheric and earth science among others. The US side of funding for the Endowment is reported to come from the US S&T "Rupee Funds" established in the 1980s to encourage and fund bilateral S&T projects.5 However, for the SBSP per se, there appears to be interest among the private sector companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman and on the Indian side, Tatas have shown interest in exploring this option.

While this can potentially be an excellent case for public-private partnership, the initiative has to come from the government. India’s foray into space and its space policies have had strong civilian and developmental roots and accordingly the government needs to place the SBSP within its overall national space policy. India’s decision to pursue SBSP will have multiple impact -clean energy, clean environment, advancement in the space arena with technology transfer as a given between India, US and Japan.
1Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Her areas of research include US foreign and security policy, military strategies of major Asian powers including China, US, Japan and Russia, space and nuclear security. She can be reached at rpr@orfonline.org; rajeswarirajagopalan@gmail.com.

2Peter A Garretson, "Power the Final Frontier: Could Satellites in Orbit be a Source of Energy for the Future? It’s Possible," Satkal Times, May 22, 2009. For a detailed study, see Peter A Garretson, "Sky’s No Limit: Space Based Solar Power, the Next Major Step in the Indo-US Strategic Partnership?," IDSA Occasional Paper No. 9, (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, August 2010), p. 17.

3Announcement of the Kalam-NSS Energy Initiative, The NSS Conference Announcement, November 05, 2010, available at http://blog.nss.org/?cat=5.

4International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2007: China and India Insights, International Energy Agency, Paris, 2007, p. 42 and 46.

5Press Information Bureau, "US-India to Establish a Bi-National Science and Technology Endowment Fund and Joint Commission," India PR Wire, March 3, 2006.