IDSA COMMENT

Kalam-NSS Indian-American Energy Initiative

November 9, 2010

During his maiden visit to India, President Barack Obama has cleared the air on the issue of ‘outsourcing of jobs to Indians’. He also announced that various deals with India worth US$ 10 billion are likely to generate about 50,000 jobs in the US in the coming few years, giving indications that India is actually not a job snatcher but a job creator! While the tempo of the Obama visit has been raised in India by highlighting various aspects of Indo-US relations, one silent revolution which is expected to generate many jobs in both countries has almost gone unnoticed. On 4 November 2010, in a press conference at Washington D.C., details of the ‘Kalam-NSS Indian-American Energy Initiative’ – a joint US-Indian endeavour intended to build clean space-based solar power satellites – were announced.

Interestingly, this unique initiative is not an initiative between the two countries, nor it is a commercial venture. It also does not follow a public-private partnership model. It is a plan formulated by a former head of state and a US-based non-profit organization – India's former President Dr. A.P.J. Kalam and the US National Space Society (NSS). This initiative is important not only because it is expected to offer alternative energy solutions, but the technology promises a cheap and clean energy source. Particularly, with Mr. Obama announcing the end of the technology denial regime against Indian entities such as DRDO and ISRO, it is expected that this endeavour would progress without any ‘administrative’ glitches.

The Kalam-NSS Indian-American Energy Initiative is being conceptualized by individuals with vast experience in the field of space technologies as well as policy planning. Dr. Kalam is a rocket scientist of repute and has vast experience in developing various major projects for the Indian state. The co-principal investor from the United States, Mr. John Mankins, is president of the Space Power Association and a former exploration chief technologist at NASA. In this project there is no direct involvement of NASA. However, there is some support visible from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The co-principal investigator is Mr. T.K. Alex who is currently the Director of ISRO’s Satellite Centre and was the leader of India’s first moon mission, the Chandrayan-1.

According to Dr. Kalam it could take around 15 years for the completion of this project. India with its proven expertise in launching satellites could help to bring down the cost of satellites. It may be premature to talk with certitude about the cost effectiveness of this project. However, the group is convinced that space solar power would be affordable in the long run. It has been claimed that the cost of energy could be 10 cents per kilowatt hour (approximately Rs. 4.30). Electricity generated from coal, believed to be the cheapest form of energy, costs around Rs 3.30 per kilowatt hour.

Global electricity demand is expected to increase by 87 per cent around 2035. It is believed that by 2050 the world may not be able to fulfil overall energy requirements in spite of using every available energy resource. Proponents of this technology and the initiative like Mr. Mark Hopkins, the CEO of the National Space Society, view this as a “game-changing technology that addresses energy security, sustainable development, climate change, and multinational cooperation.” The concept of Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) or Space Solar Power (SSP) is a four decade old concept. Since the early 1970s scientists have been working on this concept with varying degrees of success. Lack of finding and political will is the main reason for inadequate development of this technology, which involves the collection of solar power from space and its use on earth. For this purpose the energy would be trapped in space with the help of satellites and would be subsequently transferred to earth. Catching energy in space is important to reduce the losses suffered in the process of its transfer to earth. For this purpose the space system converts sunlight to microwaves outside the earth’s atmosphere.

To decide the basic roadmap for this work, on May 18-22, 2011 a bilateral conference is scheduled to be held at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama where top scientists from both countries are expected to debate this issue in detail. It is expected that the first phase of this initiative could last for one year during which a preliminary pre-feasibility study would be carried out. The second phase which could last for more than half a decade would involve a range of targeted technology and engineering demonstrations on ground. The penultimate state is expected to deliver the pilot project and the last stage involves completion and implementation of the actual project where the common man as well industry start using the SSP. The details of this project are available at the web link http://www.nss.org/settlement/ssp/library/KALAM-NSS-Initiative.pdf.

Countries like Japan have already taken a lead in this field. They have identified both near term and long term objectives for developing the SSP Programme. It is expected that they may succeeded in developing an operational system within the next five or more years. It is important for the US and India to engage Japan in this field.

But developing mega projects like the SSP are mostly viewed with mistrust by many. It is felt that successful completion of such ‘ostentatious’ ideas is not possible and more importantly such projects are huge money-spinners. In the past various inventions/ideas have been held back because of lack of public and political support. However, the energy needs of 21st century demand scrutiny of every possible option and space based solar power offers one such.