Moon Units

A Japanese company has proposed an outlandish idea to meet Earth’s future energy demands—a ring of solar panels around the lunar surface

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© Shimizu Corporation

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The moon shines down on our rippling oceans and corn-studded fields, transmuting the sun’s fierce golden rays into its own pale, ethereal light. It’s beautiful and, to the Japanese construction firm Shimizu, it’s a giant electrical outlet.  

“The moon’s face receives 13,000 trillion watts (terawatts) of solar power continuously,” writes Patrick Tucker in The Futurist(May-June 2011). “This is 650 times the amount of power the entire human population would need.” Engineers at Shimizu have dreamed up a plan for harnessing this energy. It’s a large-scaled, seemingly inconceivable plan that involves remote-controlled robots building thousands of photovoltaic panels out of moon dirt, assembling the panels into a gigantic lunar girdle belt, and laser-beaming 220 terawatts of annually collected voltage toward Earth. The project is called LUNA RING, and is still very much in the conceptual stage. “But the LUNA RING is buildable,” claims Tucker, who met with Shimizu engineer Tetsuji Yoshia at company headquarters in Japan.  

Scientists have spent decades trying to figure out how to gather solar energy from outer space. Giant solar-absorbing satellites have been the main proposal, but the weight and bulk are prohibitive, along with the amount of expensive rocket fuel needed to shoot the giants into orbit. “So we chose the moon as a power station,” Yoshia explained to Tucker. “We already have a natural satellite.”  

The sunlight-soaked moon would be ideal for solar energy collection. The lunar surface is a pure vacuum free of Earth’s dense atmospheric shroud, “which interrupts the flow of solar power with varying day-night cycles, clouds, fog, rain, smoke, dust, and volcanic ash,” explains The Futurist.  

Ultimately, the main obstacle to LUNA RING is not technology but public support. A concept of this scale requires significant financial backing, consistent public interest, and no small measure of faith. There’s also the issue of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declared celestial bodies territory-free. Any structure built on the moon would belong to all the nations of Earth—an unusual concept for us line-in-the-sand Earthlings. Minor considerations like cost and politics aside, with Earth’s natural resources depleting at heart-stopping rates, Criswell maintains that “solar power from the moon is our best shot at meeting future energy demands.”

cover-167-thumbHave something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Utne Reader.