Space-based solar power can help on energy needs

Politics, Science, Technology

*Originally published in the HOUSTON CHRONICLE
 on October 23, 2009

The United States is on a serious quest to free itself from a costly and worrisome dependence on foreign oil, and depleting supplies of domestic petroleum, coal and natural gas.

The country is pushing forward, thanks to some timely incentives from the federal government and state agencies, and we’re turning to renewable sources of energy — which will also help protect our environment.

As a former member of the House of Representatives whose legislative interests included energy, the environment and space exploration, I’m well aware of the ever-growing innovative approaches under way at NASA that can help shape America’s energy future, improve air quality and offset greenhouse gas emissions.

October is Energy Awareness Month, and this year’s theme — A Sustainable Energy Future: Putting All the Pieces Together — is especially timely. Here is my perspective on one significant piece, which has been worked on since 1967 and was presented to Congress in 1999, that could build on the space agency’s considerable technical prowess.

One of our greatest resources is all around us — sunlight. Each hour, the Earth receives more energy from the sun than the world’s population consumes in one year. And our star promises to shine brightly for billions of years to come.

With presidential direction and congressional support, NASA’s wellspring of talent could help foster the creation of solar power satellites — spacecraft that circle the Earth and beam the energy they generate down to the ground for distribution as electricity.

The International Space Station, a NASA-led project involving 15 nations and now the permanent home to six astronauts, serves as a highly visible symbol of how the sun’s radiance can be harnessed for the benefit of many. The station’s outstretched solar panels generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of 55 homes.

While it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to appreciate solar power as an environmentally friendly source of energy, it will take that level of expertise to develop a practical, economic concept to collect the sun’s radiance and relay this resource to Earth.

Two years ago this month, the National Security Space Office, a research arm of the Pentagon and the nation’s intelligence-gathering agencies, commented on the idea in a report, “Space-Based Solar Power as an Opportunity for Strategic Security.” This document characterized the prospect of a network of solar-power satellites as a grand opportunity to address the nation’s environmental and economic concerns as well as energy security.

The United States currently ranks behind Germany, Spain and Japan in solar energy use. Even though solar power has a long way to go to catch up with other sources of renewable energy, it is making impressive strides. With a network of solar-power satellites, we could expect accelerated growth in the nation’s solar-power industry to help invigorate our economy by creating high-paying jobs.

Since its birth in 1958, NASA has teamed with industry, academia and other federal agencies to offer the benefits from their cutting-edge research to those well outside the field of space exploration.

Environmentally friendly fuel cells have powered NASA’s human spacecraft since the 1960s. Now, the world’s automakers are turning to fuel cells as an alternative to fossil fuels. NASA’s legacy also includes work with wind turbines and biofuels, two more promising renewable energy sources.

Space-based solar power, initially proposed in the late 1960s, is a concept whose time has finally come. I urge the White House, Congress and NASA to act now. Our nation needs its brightest minds to offer alternative thinking to help solve our ever-growing energy needs.

Lampson, a Beaumont native, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from the 22nd district of Texas, home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and was chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee. He is currently a member of the Coalition for Space Exploration board of advisers.