Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Solar Concentration

When I was a small child, I loved the game Simcity 2000.  This game, by Maxis, posits you as the mayor of a city, who is tasked with designing the city and helping it grow.  One major factor, which also applies to real life, is energy use, as your city is not satisfied to live in primitive times, and expects electrical service in all structures.   The use over time is also simulated, as a city in 1900 only wants to light up the night, then power grows as radio, television, personal computers, and other things get developed.  Power use tapers off in later years, as the various gadgets get more efficient.
Simulated mayors had multiple options for electricity, just as actual cities do, and each had their advantages and drawbacks.  For example, coal was very cheap, but polluted your city with thick black smoke, and people thought it was sort of ugly, so it was bad for nearby property values.  Nuclear power worried people.  Solar and wind were environmentally friendly, but had low output that sometimes didn't work at all, plunging the entire city into darkness.   Fusion power was the ultimate, but the most interesting option was orbital solar, which the game called "microwave" for some reason.
As described in the flavor text, "microwave" power consisted of having an orbital satellite, which orbited the earth, gathering power in giant solar panels, and firing a power-transmitting laser into a collection dish in your city.  The power plant mostly existed as a place to fire the laser, and convert that laser into power that your city could use.  It was kind of expensive, and the flavor text warned you that the laser could possibly misfire, resulting in some random building (typically near the plant itself, the laser is trying to hit the right spot after all) being baked until it exploded.
 What if we powered cities this way in real life?   The satellite would have to be orbiting the equator, in a geostationary orbit, in order to be in range of the city at all times.  The alternative is to have a large number of satellites, and a complicated schedule establishing a duty cycle, in which the satellite closet to the city is charging the plant, while the others are storing up additional power.  Of course, the satellite would have to store up enough power to fire for 12 hours with no sunlight, because half of the earth is by definition experiencing nighttime.
 It would be green, and fascinating, but also difficult, cumbersome, and with some nasty consequence if anything went wrong whatsoever.  Still a better idea than half the things we're currently doing for power, though.

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