Palau and Pentagon looking to harness solar energy from space

A joint venture between the U.S. Department of Defense and Palau is set to test the feasibility of using satellites to beam down “affordable, clean, safe, reliable, sustainable, and expandable energy for mankind.”

At first glance, the small island nation of Palau might seem like an unusual partner for such a venture; according to Kevin Reed, an American entrepreneur heading a U.S.-Swiss-German consortium that seeks to bring the type of ultralight solar panel technology needed for the satellites, however, its uninhabited Helen Island would provide the ideal testing ground for a small demonstration.

As part of the demonstration, a 260-foot-diameter “rectifying antenna,” or rectenna, would be set up to collect 1 MW from a satellite orbiting some 300 miles above – enough to power about 1,000 homes. The satellites would move over a target area every 90 minutes or so and take 5 minutes to transmit energy down to Earth to be stored or used immediately. Such a project, which Reed explained would “be intended to show its safety for everything else,” could be completed by 2012.

Tommy Remengesau Jr., Palau’s president, and the Pentagon are certainly keen on the idea: A report prepared for the National Security Space Office concluded that space power could offer a huge potential source of energy for the DOD’s operations; at the same time, it could provide an economic boost to the Pacific nation and favorable place it as a leader in the technology.

The U.S. Defense Department in October quietly issued a 75-page study conducted for its National Security Space Office concluding that space power—the collection of energy by vast arrays of solar panels aboard mammoth satellites—offers a potential energy source for U.S. military operations.

In September, American entrepreneur Kevin Reed proposed at the 58th International Astronautical Congress in Hyderabad, India, that Palau’s uninhabited Helen Island would be an ideal spot for a small demonstration. A 260-foot-diameter (80-meter-diameter) “rectifying antenna,” or rectenna, could be set up to receive 1 megawatt of power transmitted to Earth by a satellite orbiting 300 miles (480 kilometers) above, Reed said.

That’s enough electricity to power a thousand homes, but on an empty island the project would “be intended to show its safety for everywhere else,” Reed said in a telephone interview from California.

Reed said he expects his U.S.-Swiss-German consortium to begin manufacturing the necessary ultralight solar panels within two years and to attract financial support from manufacturers wanting to show how their technology—launch vehicles, satellites, transmission technology—could make such a system work.

Reed estimates the project would cost about 800 million U.S. dollars and that it could be completed as early as 2012.

At the UN climate conference here this month, a partner of Reed discussed the idea with the Palauans, who Reed said could benefit from beamed-down energy if the project is expanded to populated areas.

“We are keen on alternative energy,” Palau’s Remengesau said. “And if this is something that can benefit Palau, I’m sure we’d like to look at it.”