In Paris this week, world leaders are attempting to hammer out the first binding agreement to reduce global carbon emissions that most scientists say contribute to climate change. Even if they can agree to take action, there will still be the matter of making those changes happen. One way we could keep our atmosphere from overheating might be to harvest the energy we need from beyond it.
Space-based solar power is a form of clean, green and literally limitless power that many people may not even have heard of, which is why a so-called "Off-World Consortium" of entities with an interest in getting our power via space plans to launch this week at the climate summit while the eyes of the climate-conscious world are trained on Paris.
The basic idea is to put solar panels in orbit that can collect a constant stream of energy from our star, unimpeded by things like clouds or nightfall, then beam it back down to Earth via microwaves and feed those electrons into the grid. It's an idea that NASA and others have been looking into for decades, but the cost of assembling huge solar panels in space has always been prohibitive.
One of the members of the consortium is Shackleton Energy, which has a pretty far-out plan for driving down the cost of space-based solar power. The Austin, Texas-based company wants to set up shop on the lunar south pole and mine the moon's ice to convert it to fuel for moving supplies around space, eventually making it possible to manufacture infrastructure on the moon that could be used to put solar power stations in service around Earth by the 2030s. At least, that's the hope.
"We need to tie space to the energy industry," Shackleton COO Jim Keravala said at the New Worlds conference in Austin in October.
He calls it a "leading energy solution" that can not only help meet Earth's rapidly growing energy demand without adding more carbon emissions to the atmosphere, but also give a boost to space exploration.
"On the back of that [tying space to energy needs on Earth] is how we go out into the solar system and to the stars," he said.
According to John C. Mankins, a former NASA technologist and author of "The Case for Space Solar Power" whom I also met at the New Worlds conference, just three orbiting satellites could provide communications capability and energy for much of humanity.
But now Mankins says that a hyper-modular approach described in his book -- using an array of smaller, networked solar collectors that are easier to deploy -- could be an affordable and even profitable way to improve quality of life on Earth and also enable the future of space exploration.
"Think of it like a coral reef," Mankins says. "With different 'species...' it's self-assembling... at an initial cost of about $5 billion."
While it's still a big up-front investment, he says it's significantly less than the $20 billion or even trillion-dollar space solar-power concepts from previous decades.
You can see his full pitch in the video below:
While ideas like these -- pulling the juice for our devices and electric cars down from space or mining the moon for water -- often sound like some Jetsonian fantasy, small practical steps are actually being taken toward implementing them.
In April, a partnership between Northrop Grumman and CalTech committed over $17 million to the development of space solar power technology and last week, President Obama signed a bill making asteroid mining legal under US law, potentially setting up some of the legal framework for what companies like Shackleton hope to accomplish.
So, for all you world leaders in Paris this week, there you have it -- a plan to get the majority of our power from a truly clean source and eventually make money doing it. All that's needed is a few billion dollars to get things going...but that's probably cheaper than relocating most of Miami or all of the Maldives to higher ground, right?