One weakness of solar power is its intermittency. But photo-voltaic panels in geostationary orbit could be positioned to receive constant sunlight and thereby furnish the earth with a reliable stream of electricity. They should be the focus of experiments on the scale of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor scheduled to be built in France. Unlike fusion, space-solar technologies – including wireless power transmission – are well understood. The aesthetics, like those of offshore wind turbines, are contentious. But for me, the image of a ring of sun-reflecting solar-power satellites in the night sky evokes Yeats’s “golden apples of the sun” – humankind’s coming of age on star power. On Earth, we need entirely new electrical grids that are “smart,” store excess power, and minimize resistance to enable transmission of renewable but intermittent energy across continents.
There’s much more that can be done to promote “green” homes and offices through a more enlightened federal policy. Mass public exhibits of creative sun- and wind-powered technology, buildings, and communities could stimulate consumer demand in the way that General Motors’ “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair created demand for cars and parkways and, by extension, suburban homes.
The late Nobel laureate Rick Smalley observed that even though our civilization has many problems, energy is central to all of them. Questions that begin “What is…?” are often the wrong ones; the better question is “What could possibly be?” Spurred by World War II, the United States went from biplanes to jets, from laboratory U-235 fission to Hiroshima, from microwaves to radar – all in less than a decade. The coming battle for a sustainable energy infrastructure will require every bit as much a team effort from government, researchers, and industry. We know where we must go eventually. Why not head there now?
Marty Hoffert is professor emeritus of physics at New York University.