Monday, 20 April 2009 12:27
By Alexis Madrigal wired science
How's this for crazy?: A company files a patent to destroy hurricanes as they form by beaming them with energy from a space-based solar plant. Maybe it is crazy, but that same company, Solaren, took a first step in that direction this week when it inked a deal with the northern California utility, PG&E, to provide 200 megawatts of power capacity transmitted from orbit in 2016.
Apparently, sending up billions of dollars worth of solar collectors and using microwaves to send the energy onto two square miles of receivers in the desert is a little ho-hum to Solaren's wild minds.
"The present invention relates to space-based power systems and, more particularly, to altering weather elements, such as hurricanes or forming hurricanes, using energy generated by a space-based power system," Jim Rogers and Gary Spirnak write in their 2006 patent application.
By heating up the upper and middle levels of an infant hurricane, they say they could disrupt the flows of air that power the enormous storms. Air warmed by tropical waters flows up through a hurricane and is vented through the eye into the upper atmosphere. Theoretically, you could heat up the top of the storm and lower the pressure differential between layers, resulting in a weaker storm.
Attempts at weather modification have taken many forms over the decades from cloud seeding to the strange fans that vineyards use for hyperlocal weather modding. Some analysts have even speculated that geoengineering techniques could allow countries to weaponize the climate by subtly turning an enemy country's breadbasket into a desert, for example. Hurricanes have also been a target of dozens of plans to alter their courses or slow their winds.
In fact, there have been enough schemes that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a canned response to would-be hurricane modders:
"There have been numerous techniques that we have considered over the years to modify hurricanes: seeding clouds with dry ice or silver iodide, cooling the ocean with cryogenic material or icebergs, changing the radiational balance in the hurricane environment by absorption of sunlight with carbon black, exploding the hurricane apart with hydrogen bombs, and blowing the storm away from land with giant fans, etc. As carefully reasoned as some of these suggestions are, they all share the same shortcoming: They fail to appreciate the size and power of tropical cyclones."
But Solaren's patent-pending scheme is perhaps a hair more ambitious than dragging icebergs to the Caribbean or nuking a storm. They propose to launch a 1.5-gigawatt plant (more than seven times the proposed PG&E project) into space. The plant would assemble itself, and then a precision guidance system would direct all that energy onto a patch of the Earth between .6 and 6 miles across.
It's probably kind to call the project far fetched. Even Solaren's own CEO, Gary Sprinak, acknowledged this.
"Our thought was just to kind of cover our bases. I don't know if it will ever be built or not," Spirnak said. "The only ones who would really do this is the government. No public company could ever handle the liability, but we'd love to build one for them."
Not that any kind of space-based solar power system is likely to be charging up the grid any time soon either. Despite the PG&E agreement, Solaren's team has yet to raise the billions of dollars necessary to get their project into orbit. And that could be tough, given the dubious profitability of the technology, particularly in comparison to ground-based green tech. Energy analyst Chris Nelder calls the technology a "pure fantasy."
"Why would anyone be interested in space-based solar power when utility-scale solar technology on the ground today costs 0.3 percent of its price, with far less risk and far safer proven technology, and is just beginning to exploit its commercial potential?" Nelder asked in a recent analysis.
But don't lose all hope for hurricane-scale weather modding. NOAA hasn't.
"Perhaps if the time comes when men and women can travel at nearly the speed of light to the stars, we will then have enough energy for brute-force intervention in hurricane dynamics," the agency's response concluded.
Space-based solar isn't quite a warp drive, but it's in the same league, or at least on the same TV show.