Thursday, January 17, 2008

What I Found on ESPN's Tuesday Morning Quarterback

Alongside bits on the NFL playoffs, attractive cheerleaders, Godzilla, Miley Cyrus, China's imperialism, Cary Grant, and The Simpsons, we have a solution to the global energy crisis

"Physicists at a recent Washington meeting estimated that solar collectors in orbit, using lasers to transmit power to converters in the North African desert, could supply all of Europe's energy at a price competitive with current power generation and without carbon emissions. A world of space-based energy would not need coal-fired or nuclear power plants, and there would be sufficient electricity available so that hydrogen could be made from seawater to power our cars and airplanes. Homo sapiens could kiss the greenhouse gas issue goodbye.

Needless to say, building orbital solar power collectors would be hugely expensive -- although once the collectors were completed, operating costs would be relatively low because no fuel is required and no waste is made. Nations would need to cooperate on positioning the orbital systems and the ground receptors. There's some chance that zapping powerful lasers or microwave beams through the atmosphere would affect the weather. And extremely expensive power towers floating in space would, sadly, provide tempting military targets.

Already, the Pentagon's National Security Space Office has quietly told lawmakers it would like to build a smallish orbiting proof-of-concept solar power station that would be used to beam energy down to deployed U.S. armed forces units. The Army and Marines have countless diesel-electric generators set up in Iraq and Afghanistan; if deployed forces could draw their electric power from a beam from space, this would be preferable. But if the first space solar generator is built to support the U.S. military, this could get the whole idea off on the wrong foot, making space solar power towers feel like valid military targets.

Anyway, TMQ finds it reassuring that there are potential energy solutions that involve vast amounts of power without any greenhouse gas emissions, fissile materials that might be stolen, or atomic byproducts that must be buried. Plus, return to those sun statistics. Our star generates 12 quadrillion terawatts of energy per year, radiating in all directions, so that an estimated 100,000 terawatts per year will fall on Earth -- warming our world, causing plant growth and making life possible. Some 100,000 terawatts end up here -- the rest streams off into the void. Thus 99.999999 percent of the energy generated by the sun is wasted, except perhaps for offering career opportunities for alien astronomers and their postdocs in other parts of the galaxy."

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