Space based solar power and not losing sight of the plot

“The General doesn’t like it,” he said, because “he doesn’t want to own the big, easy target that’s the first thing destroyed in the next war.” So much for what we might do together on Space Based Solar Power. This would be a short call. The idea of a massive power station floating in space attracted this kind of humor in some of our US Department of Defense brethren. The reply was reused for storing and transferring propellant in low Earth orbit. That gas station in space – also the first thing blown to bits. And here we thought the DoD didn’t like reusability. If you find that funny, you’re in aerospace.

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Concepts for space based solar power from the ESA commissioned reports. Credit: As shown.

Yet recently, the European Space Agency seemingly came out in favor of space solar power. A “like” from the ESA does not come easy. Here is hoping this gains momentum before they consult with a General. “Seemingly” should have an asterisk, as NASA also liked the concept long ago in the 1990s, spending real dollars and rounding up the usual suspects to figure it out, myself included. With time though, the initial enthusiasm of some did not translate into the action of many. By 2000, the idea mostly ground to a halt inside NASA. I put together my last formal report on this that year. The enthusiasm of some in Japan was also high then. Anyone at the time, seeing the reports, committees, and the press, believing this would take off, would have lost that bet. Still, the work of many people, with some hardware, if far outnumbered by analysis, all confirmed this was a promising idea for clean, abundant power. Ready for prime time is another matter – but time has passed, and why space based solar power stations are a good idea is much better understood now. The trick is not to lose the plot.

That was the good news from Kennedy, except even as all the parts came together, we realized something was seriously amiss.

The charts flew by the screen in the small, dark amphitheater. The project compartmentalized everyone and their work, which is to say, we all performed small parts in a big play. Solar cells, efficiencies, check! Next presentation. Structures, mass, check! Finally, breaktime, before the charts flashing by give someone a seizure, as if we could take it all in like Data the android in Star Trek. This was one of many gatherings where everyone reflected on if their part fit with everyone else’s parts. My role with a team at Kennedy Space Center was to see if very advanced space transportation could credibly fly often enough to build solar power stations in space. After much to-do, the answer was yes, multiple daily launches are quite credible if we work the right space transportation technology. We needed reusable spaceships, of course, designed to fly often. Our tack cleared up just what “designed to fly often” really meant. That was the good news from Kennedy, except even as all the parts came together, we realized something was seriously amiss.

As you drive between Orlando and Kennedy Space Center, as I once did five times a week, you will notice a power plant off in the distance. Two colossal towers make it hard to miss. Contrary to what a visitor may think, as some asked me over the years, this is not a nuclear plant. The laws of thermodynamics being what they are, the cooling towers are for a plain, old-fashioned coal-burning plant. This particular plant, the Stanton Energy Center, has the distinction of being the worse polluting coal plant in the US. The two coal burner units at Stanton each produce 440 megawatts of electricity. Not by coincidence, this is about what our space solar power station would produce back in 1999. A space solar power station must compete with terrestrial power sources, so it should generate similar amounts of electricity. It would have been easy to believe the green plant just replaces the dirty one, and off we go. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Our planet is hungry for power. To measure global power, we use terawatts. These are units in the range of what the starship Enterprise has available, except they are a few hundred years in our future and remain science fiction. For now, we generate numbers like this between all of us on Earth, about 15 terawatts. We have the technological know-how to grow this power every year by the hundreds of gigawatts, adding more plants like that one you might pass on the highway, multiples of these –  every year. We saw the basics of this race back in the late 90s. If we put up a solar power plant in space, someone else would add 40 times as much dirty power. That’s the picture today when 18 gigawatts of coal power were added to the starship Earth last year.

We saw the basics of this race back in the late 90s. If we put up a solar power plant in space, someone else would add 40 times as much dirty power.

If you have been in NASA long enough and want to do some good, you might try making a small dent in a big problem. For space solar power stations, the dent is about reducing the carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere yearly. Preferably, make a big dent. Though on a personal level, if you’re working on such a project, you might be forgiven for being greedy. In the long run, such a massive undertaking should, with other efforts, help us turn the curve worldwide, arriving at Year Zero – when we see global carbon dioxide emissions drop from the previous year. This would start a clear downward trend, not a fluke due to a pandemic. As our look at space solar power ended in the late 1990s, even making a small dent appeared unlikely, and not for lack of trying. Instead, we were marching uphill, as globally, a lot more power capacity would be built every year, and not of the space solar power kind. Our old and moldy charts, the ones we debated that day in the dark amphitheater, are still out there to show this. They remain pretty near the mark too.

NASA Space based solar power circa 1999, view of global power growth versus stabilizing C02 in our atmosphere via carbon neutral power generation. More is available here.

Every year, dozens of coal plants go up around the world, and dozens more using fossil fuels like natural gas. China accounts for most of the new plants, while US coal plant capacity is in decline. These are the same kind of plant, if slightly more modern, as the US and Europe once had aplenty, ironically creating the wealth that makes it possible for us to move to cleaner energy sources today. In this global backdrop, building a relatively small solar power station this year, and another the year after, and so on, is hardly capable of making a difference. Part of this was so twenty years ago too.

Fast forward to 2022, when technology has a way of changing things exactly as we hoped. Back in the day (a phrase I use a lot since retiring), a solar power station in space came in at a massive 5,000 metric tons producing that measly 400 megawatts down on Earth. But a lot has happened since 2000. You can’t keep a good idea down, or its advocates like John Mankins or Paul Jaffe. The ESA reports bring us up to date with all the latest technology. Now we can plan for a station getting a respectable 1,440 megawatts to the grid and weighing in at only about 2,000 metric tons. That’s much less weight, much more power, and all that means less cost.

John Mankins in 2015, Orlando FL, presenting progress on the space based solar power outlook. Credit: zapatatalksnasa.com

You’re likely to have a neighbor today with solar panels on their roof, everything electronic has advanced in leaps and bounds, and courtesy of SpaceX and NASA, we have Starships cranking out at a Starbase in Texas.

In other words, technology for space solar power has not been still since the late 1990s, even lacking direct investment. You’re likely to have a neighbor today with solar panels on their roof, everything electronic has advanced in leaps and bounds, and courtesy of SpaceX and NASA, we have Starships cranking out at a Starbase in Texas. As more good news, though the fossil fuel power added worldwide in 2020 was a sizable 60 gigawatts, it was slightly less than in 2019. More importantly, in the same year our world added a massive 260 gigawatts of renewable electricity.

Elon Musk is fond of saying space solar power won’t add up. He attributes this to all the transmission inefficiencies all along the path from sunlight to electricity down on Earth. This is so he says, even if the solar plant in space sends down power all day. But this misses the point, even as it reminds us of the point. A solar power station collects energy all day, providing continuous power. So, while solar panels on Earth, and batteries at night, could end up doing much the same the world over, a mix of energy sources will be necessary across very different countries and situations. In space, it turns out, the sun never sets for a solar power station. This will prove priceless for rainy days or weeks or stretches when the wind that seemed so constant isn’t.

As you drive to Kennedy now, you still pass the coal plant. It’s slated to be shut down in 2027 and replaced with natural gas units. Up ahead, the sights have changed. As you approach Kennedy and near the gate, for the longest time you would have seen that staple of Florida tourism, orange groves. Coming up from the south, the required pit-stop meant dropping into the Crisafulli Groves store for a bag of perfect, delicious, if pricey, oranges. Those days passed, and the stores shuttered in 2017. The orange industry in Florida and worldwide has been under stress for decades. “Citrus greening” is only one of a host of threats orange groves continue to face. This creates “ghost groves,” acres of orange trees that no longer produce many oranges. The root cause of most of these stresses is climate change.

Having once had a few citrus trees, it’s sad to see them slowly wither away. Trees that once gave more fruit than you could give away at the office, or turn into smooth OJ that puts any store-bought kind to shame, produce less one year, then less, and finally hardly at all. A lesson learned, enjoy the oranges while they are still there.

It’s all connected now like we only began to realize long ago.

By 2020, my drive to Kennedy had come to a stop. In this different world, telework already meant an infrequent commute. But then came the pandemic. After everyone went home to work, but before the vaccines, I found myself in route again to Kennedy. Zoom just wouldn’t do. I went to one of our labs with special permission to meet with our research team. Near the gate, the site of an abandoned orange grove, workers were busy forming frames and rails and unpacking solar panels. Months later, when I retired, I saw the installation was complete, 74.5 megawatts of clean energy on 500 acres. It’s all connected now like we only began to realize long ago.

The threads between spaceships, and solar power stations in space, the climate we have changed already and what change is yet to come, the land and the trees, and what we will do are all dots to be connected. It’s likely not a General’s job to connect these dots. Maybe it’s not a problem small enough for NASA, a company and its investors, or the European Union and ESA either. Albeit, earlier this year NASA expressed renewed interest in space based solar power. Though a problem created by disconnected actions, a sort of tragedy of the commons, isn’t always solved by even more disconnected actions.

But one night sooner than we think is possible, we might see some receiver panels laid out on land far away, softly lit up all around, with a notable bright spot in the sky that never moves. The power will be flowing to thousands of homes. The acres occupied will be less, with as much or more power than the terrestrial solar farm asleep nearby. To circle the installation, we might plant some trees, or an orange grove.

Florida Power and Light’s (FPL) new Discovery Solar Energy Center is a 74.5 megawatt solar site, spanning 491 acres at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA.

Note: Updated 9/3/2022 to correct a couple of places referring to the EU which should have said ESA.

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