"Drilling Up" -- Some Look to Space for Energy

Charles J. Hanley in Bali, Indonesia
Associated Press
December 26, 2007

While great nations fretted over coal and oil at the UN climate conference in Bali, Indonesia, this month, one of the smallest countries there was looking toward the heavens.

The annual meeting's corridors can be a sounding board for unlikely "solutions" to climate change—such as filling the skies with soot to block the sun and cultivating oceans of seaweed to absorb the atmosphere's heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Unlike other ideas, however, one this year had an influential backer—the Pentagon. The U.S. military is investigating whether space-based solar power—beaming energy down from satellites—could provide "affordable, clean, safe, reliable, sustainable, and expandable energy for mankind."

Tommy Remengesau Jr. is interested, too. "We'd like to look at it," said the president of the tiny western Pacific nation of Palau.

Palau and the Pentagon

The U.S. Defense Department in October quietly issued a 75-page study conducted for its National Security Space Office concluding that space power—the collection of energy by vast arrays of solar panels aboard mammoth satellites—offers a potential energy source for U.S. military operations.

In September, American entrepreneur Kevin Reed proposed at the 58th International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad, India, that Palau's uninhabited Helen Island would be an ideal spot for a small demonstration. A 260-foot-diameter (80-meter-diameter) "rectifying antenna," or rectenna, could be set up to receive 1 megawatt of power transmitted to Earth by a satellite orbiting 300 miles (480 kilometers) above, Reed said.

That's enough electricity to power a thousand homes, but on an empty island the project would "be intended to show its safety for everywhere else," Reed said in a telephone interview from California.

Reed said he expects his U.S.-Swiss-German consortium to begin manufacturing the necessary ultralight solar panels within two years and to attract financial support from manufacturers wanting to show how their technology—launch vehicles, satellites, transmission technology—could make such a system work.

Reed estimates the project would cost about 800 million U.S. dollars and that it could be completed as early as 2012.

At the UN climate conference here this month, a partner of Reed discussed the idea with the Palauans, who Reed said could benefit from beamed-down energy if the project is expanded to populated areas.

"We are keen on alternative energy," Palau's Remengesau said. "And if this is something that can benefit Palau, I'm sure we'd like to look at it."

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