The man behind a far-out idea for providing solar power
This article originally appeared in the June 27, 1978 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Before you can be ushered into the bare, blackboard-and-conference-table office of Dr. Peter Glaser, the Czechoslovakian-born mechanical engineer and vice-president of engineering sciences at Arthur D. Little, his colleagues take pains to prepare you for a close encounter with genius. “When I’m in his presence I often feel as if I am standing close to a figure who will go down in history, next to someone who I will tell my children and grandchildren that I knew,” says one admirer.
To be sure, there is an other-worldly quality to encounters with Glaser, created as much by his soft, visionary voice as by the ideas in which he is immersed. Since 1968, his views on solving the global energy shortage by using huge, orbiting solar-power stations have captured the imagination of aerospace scientists and drawn the criticism of those who dismiss his project as an intriguing yet nonetheless unworkable Buck Rogers fantasy. When Glaser in 1973 patented his model for satellite solar power, critics began snickering a little less loudly. Now that the full House of Representatives has voted to approve $25 million for NASA and Department of Energy research into the feasibility of satellite solar power, the long-embattled Glaser is basking in vindication.
“At the time I first began talking about this, the kindest word anybody ever used about the solar alternative was that it was ‘exotic.’ What they meant was that it was ‘irrelevant,’ Glaser recalls. “People didn’t find out that the sun was shining until 1973.”
Like other scientists working on the long-term energy needs of the planet, Glaser cites the Arab oil embargo of 1973 as the catalyst for exploring alternatives. Unlike other proponents of renewable solar power, those who would capture the sun’s energy through decentralized, ground-based collectors, Glaser advocates centralized power production on a scale that is truly staggering. His scheme calls for numerous 20,000-ton satellites to be placed in synchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the earth. Solar panels on them would collect the sun’s energy, convert it to microwaves and beam it to earth. Huge, six-mile-diameter receiving antennas located on earth would catch the microwaves and reconvert them to electricity. The resulting energy would be distributed to regional utility power pools and sold to consumers. At the orbital height envisioned by Glaser, the satellites would be exposed to sunlight for 24 hours nearly every day of the year (minor eclipses twice a year would be the only interruptions). Because the satellites required would be larger (72 miles square) than any we could hope to launch from earth, they would have to be constructed in space by a team of at least 400 trained astronaut-laborers. It’s here that the project begins to sound like science fiction. According to one plan kicking about, the required materials for the satellites would come from mining the moon.
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