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SBSP illustration
Space based solar powers like this “suntower” are no closer to reality today than when this illustration was created in the 1990s. (credit: NASA)

Diamonds are forever


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This past Memorial Day weekend, the National Space Society held its annual International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Toronto, Canada. As usual, the ISDC held numerous sessions on space solar power, something that ISDC has been doing since, well, forever. But is space based solar power (SBSP) actually getting anywhere? The idea first rose to prominence in the 1970s, but then stagnated for many decades. However, those with short memories may have forgotten that even in the relatively recent past both the rhetoric and the promises for SBSP were significantly greater than they are today.

It is not hard to search the Internet and find space advocates who were very excited several years ago and assumed that the subject was reaching critical mass.

Take, for example, five years ago, when a previous ISDC featured what was billed as the First National Space Society Space Solar Power Symposium (see “Blinded by the light”, The Space Review, June 7, 2010). Prior to that there was a lot of buzz about Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E’s) 2009 contract with California-based startup Solaren, which promised to provide space-based solar power to the California energy grid by 2016. And only a few years before, in 2007, the National Security Space Office (NSSO) produced a report about the possibility of space solar power providing power to military facilities. In particular, the report sought to address what was then a pressing issue: the difficulty of delivering diesel fuel for generators to remote outposts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where fuel convoys were regularly being attacked.

Memories are short, but it is worth remembering that each of these announcements was met with a great deal of enthusiasm by space based solar power advocates. Some claimed that the 2007 NSSO report indicated that “the Pentagon” was now interested in developing space based solar power, and of course because the Pentagon had so much money, they could bankroll significant space based solar power research. In response, in October 2007 the National Space Society even announced the creation of the Space Solar Alliance for Future Energy to pursue the recommendations of the NSSO study. And after the 2009 PG&E contract with Solaren, some of the same space based solar power enthusiasts also claimed that “the American electricity industry” was now interested in developing space based solar power. It is not hard to search the Internet and find space advocates who were very excited and assumed that the subject was reaching critical mass.

So what happened?

The National Security Space Office was only a tiny, and not influential, office in the vast military bureaucracy, and it ceased to exist as an entity in 2010. The report it produced was forgotten relatively soon after it was released and did not lead to Department of Defense funding of space based solar power research. The Space Solar Alliance for Future Energy appears to have been dormant for many years now (there is no evidence of it actually doing anything).

As for Solaren, which was going to start producing space based solar power by 2016, after a number of years of nothing happening… nothing continued to happen. As of August 2014 Solaren’s CEO indicated that funding problems had pushed their delivery date back to “the end of the decade.” And the First National Space Society Solar Power Symposium also appears to have been the only Space Solar Power Symposium; although every ISDC since then has featured SBSP speakers. The field itself does not appear vibrant and growing.

Space based solar power has always been a sort of fringe cult of the space enthusiast movement. Its appeal has been that it tries to answer the economic justification question for space settlement.

Now compare what hasn’t happened with space based solar power in the last seven-plus years with what has happened in the energy sector. In July 2008 the average gasoline price in the United States was $4.47 a gallon. It plunged in the next year due to the recession, then climbed back up to around $4 a gallon in 2011–12, then in the past year has dropped back to around $2.70 a gallon today. Everybody who drives a car in the United States knows that they are paying significantly less for gasoline than they were just last year, and this price in gasoline has put money directly back in Americans’ pockets.

During that same period, new technology enabled American industry to substantially increase oil and natural gas production, to the point where the United States is on its way to becoming the world’s largest oil producer. Also during that same period, due to policy changes and subsidies enacted by the Obama administration, there were substantial investments in renewable energy sources such as wind and ground-based solar power. They still remain a small part of overall US electricity production, but they are much greater than they were seven years ago.

So on the one hand we have space based solar power, which some people were claiming five to eight years ago was an important future source of clean, renewable energy but seems to have stagnated since then. And, on the other hand, we have the actual current energy sector, which has experienced real change in the form of new technology, higher production of gas and oil, and lower costs. Furthermore, if space based solar power was ever going to start to thrive, it should have been at a time when the administration was providing substantial subsidies to renewable energy sources. But those subsidies went to ground-based industries and SBSP did not benefit.

Space based solar power has always been a sort of fringe cult of the space enthusiast movement. Its appeal has been that it tries to answer the economic justification question for space settlement. Why settle space? Because SBSP will provide a product that people on Earth actually want, and the desire for profit will cause people to go into orbit. The problem, however, is that the business case doesn’t even remotely make sense. When even ground-based solar power still has not become economically viable without huge government subsidies, why is space based solar power, with its high capital, transportation, and maintenance costs, going to be viable?

In recent years, it seems that within the space enthusiast community the justification for space settlement has also moved on. The asteroid miners have come along in the form of Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries (although neither has been able to say when they expect to start actually, well, mining asteroids). And there have been other groups like Mars One who have justified settling space in terms of human desire—people just want to go, never mind how they are going to continually fund their existence off Earth.

Where are the demonstration missions? Where are the proof-of-concept missions? Where’s the billions of dollars in investment?

Of course, the SBSP advocates can always claim that their field is making some kind of progress. After all, in the past five years SpaceX has emerged as a major launch provider and has lowered launch costs (at least if you launch on SpaceX.) And some other developments, like the work of Tethers Unlimited and the development of 3D printing technology, would seem to offer new technology paths to building big structures in space.

But where are the demonstration missions? Where are the proof-of-concept missions? Where’s the billions of dollars in investment, or even the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, to take substantial first steps in making space based solar power a reality? None of that has happened since the 2007 NSSO report. None of it is realistically in the works.

Enthusiasm for space based solar power in many ways shares the same psychology as many other faith-based endeavors where the failure of their prophecy to come true does not automatically deter the believers. ISDC 2016 will take place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a place that gets a lot of sun. You can expect the solar power advocates to set up their revival tent there as well.


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