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Beaming Energy From Space

PETER GLASER probably is right when he says it takes around 75 years to fully establish a major new energy source. So we can't expect to see his vision of abundant solar power captured by orbiting satellites and beamed to Earth any time soon. What we can see today is substantial technological progress toward that goal a quarter century after Dr. Glaser proposed it.

Last month, for example, Glaser - a vice president of Arthur D. Little Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. - joined other solar power satellite (SPS) prophets in San Antonio for the first annual wireless power transmission conference. Transmitting power from point to point via microwave or laser beams is a key technology for SPS. Reports at the conference show it has reached the stage of proof-of-concept experiments.

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The Alaska Energy Authority has a proposal for a demonstration project in which power would be beamed between two ground sites. In Europe, meanwhile, Electricite de France and the French space agency are studying a similar project. This would beam power over a three-kilometer microwave link on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.

Electricite de France and Eurospace - a consortium of European companies - also are studying the use of energy beaming as a means by which solar-power satellites could power other spacecraft, including a space station. Lucien Deschamps, general secretary of the Paris based Soci des Electricians et des Electroniciens, reported that the group hopes to test the concept with small microwave-beaming experiments carried along when Ariane rockets launch commercial payloads. Japan also is planning small rocket-b ased experiments with power beaming.

As reported by the industry weekly Space News, Mr. Deschamps said that such experiments "could constitute a decisive step on the road to power from space." Meanwhile, other key SPS technologies - spacecraft materials, solar cells, launch systems - have developed far beyond what they were in 1968 when Glaser published his ideas in the journal Science.

Thus the concept of power from the sky has moved from the visionary stage into early practical development. Recognizing this, Glaser, Frank Davidson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Katinka Csigi of ERIC International in Cambridge, Mass., have brought out a new compendium report that brings the SPS vision up to date ("Solar Power Satellites: The Emerging Energy Option," published by Ellis Horwood in Chichester, England). It notes that we don't have to wait for a full blown SPS system to begin enjoying benefits from the technology.

Point-to-point power relays is likely to be practical before the satellite system can be put into operation. Such power could be distributed to remote places on Earth without the need for stringing hundreds of kilometers of cumbersome, costly cables. This might even involve a satellite that could relay ground-based power over continent-spanning distances in a single beam-up beam-down hop.

For Peter Glaser, developing SPS has become more than a search for a new power source. He sees it as a quest to do something for the good of humankind. He is convinced that the key to sustainable economic development is increased use of electricity not generated from fossil fuels. He sees solar-power satellites as an effective technology for meeting that goal. Here again, he may well be right. At least, it's an option worth pursuing.

The United States government shortsightedly abandoned support for SPS research 13 years ago. The Clinton administration should take a fresh look at it. Power from the sky could be a major 21st-century energy option that also might yield earlier benefits along the way to full development. It would neither pollute the air nor warm the climate. That should fit administration policy to a tee.