Saturday, April 23, 2011
Post-Japan, the hunt for the safest option
Here's the link to an article of mine that appeared in today's Pioneer about the space based solar power option.
The nuclear meltdown in northern Japan has confirmed our worst fears about nuclear energy. Tragically, India continues to blindly follow the discarded notions of yesterday, ignoring viable possibilities like solar power
With the nuclear crisis still unfolding in Japan, there is fresh thinking around the world about the safety of the nuclear energy option. While India has examined several alternative energy options, no single option is likely to be a magic bullet. It will probably be wise to look at other options including ones that have not yet been seriously considered as yet.
Under such a scenario, it may be a good time for India to explore the option of space-based solar power (SBSP) — a possibility that has not caught the popular or government attention very much, for a variety of reasons. Unlike the ground-based solar power option, SBSP does not have problems like cloud cover or availability of sunlight and so on.
The SBSP option is likely to be costly. While cost may have been the most serious impediment in making the SBSP option a reality so far, there has been lack of direction and commitment from the political leadership that has also contributed to this. Exploiting space for solar power is not a new idea although it has remained a theoretical exercise for a number of reasons, including because of the lobbying by other alternate energy groups.
SBSP involves using extremely large satellites made up of a large number of solar cells to collect the sun’s energy, convert it to radio waves to be beamed to antenna farms on the ground where it is reconverted to energy.
The scale of such a project will be large but the SBSP is comparable to several mega projects undertaken in the past by both India and the US — the US National Highway project or the Indian rural electrification programme are two cases in point. On cost, experts opine that developing a prototype or putting a 10 MW demonstrator in GEO (geosynchronous Earth orbit), using exiting launch vehicles, will be to the tune of around $10 billion over 10 years. Collaboration with other space-faring nations will bring down the cost to make it a cheaper, safer and cleaner option. More important is the need to calculate the cost on the basis of both direct and indirect cost of climate change and environmental issues. Also, this will be a huge effort in strengthening international hi-tech cooperation, creating several spin-off benefits, including job creation and gaining access to advanced technology.
In the recent past, former President APJ Abdul Kalam promoted the idea of SBSP at the Aeronautical Society of India (AeSI) and later at a NSS (US-based National Space Society) press conference in Washington DC last year. This initiative as of now remains an India-US initiative although it needs to be broadened, may be at a later stage, to set up a larger consortium to make SBSP into a viable proposition.
Why SBSP? Speaking in November last year, Dr Kalam highlighted the huge energy shortage that India and the world would be facing in the next few decades. Kalam estimated that by 2050, even if one were to use all possible sources of energy, there will be a global shortage to the tune of 66 per cent. On the other hand, if one were to use the SBSP option, the world would move from an energy deficit to an energy surplus situation. Additionally, the clean and safe energy option will go a long way in solving the world’s climate change woes.
At the India-US level, this initiative is associated with some key technocrats such as Dr Kalam, Mark Hopkins, CEO of the NSS, John Mankins from the Space Power Association and a veteran of NASA and also Dr TK Alex from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Satellite Centre, Bangalore who is also heading the Chandrayaan Project. Participation of TK Alex in a sense gives an official colour to the project.
On the Indian side, some preliminary studies were done in 1987 on advanced space transportation system at a conceptual level to make SBSP a cheaper option, but there has been no follow up. In the recent past, the ISRO has been engaged in getting some additional technical studies on the feasibility of this option, looking at three specific configurations. While continuing with the technical feasibility studies, ISRO has also made it clear that it can proceed only if they get suitable proposals/funding from foreign governments. While the technical studies are one aspect of it, more important is the need for a clear directive from the government. A clear political mandate calling upon the technocrats and scientific community to develop the necessary technologies is one way to take this option forward. The government can thereafter be a facilitator if it seeks foreign collaboration, for instance. But the initiative has to come from the political leadership.
What are India’s options to make SBSP a real viable option given the cost factor and technology? Can the governments and the private sectors of both India and the US make serious commitments to take the first step towards R&D investment on SBSP? It might be worth the effort to place the SBSP initiative within the US-India S&T Endowment and Board. The Indo-US S&T Fund finances projects on an entire range of issues from biotechnology, advanced materials and nanotechnology science to clean energy technologies, basic space and atmospheric and earth science. Other countries making significant investment in this area include Japan that has made an investment of $21 bn for the next few years. India and the US can take the lead to establish an international consortium based on cost sharing and more importantly on international technology cooperation.
Countries like India and the US need to take up initiatives to do major technological demonstrations and milestone projects, which will have far reaching consequences across political, strategic and technological spheres. Cooperation on SBSP will convey a major strategic message.