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SBSP illustration
How should the government best promote development of space-based solar power? (credit: © Mafic Studios Inc.)

Space-based solar power: right here, right now?

The examination of space-based solar power (SBSP) by the National Security Space Office (NSSO) in 2007, in combination with ever more volatile energy prices and increasing concern over dependence on foreign sources of energy, has given rise to refocused attention on the idea of collecting energy from the Sun by spacecraft in Earth orbit and beaming it down to the ground. Though this idea may sound like science fiction to some, it was first proposed by Peter Glaser in his groundbreaking paper “Power from the Sun: Its Future” in 1968. Since that time, the concept has undergone several rounds of investigation by agencies including NASA, the Department of Energy, and, most recently, the NSSO.

Obviously, the idea of tapping into the near limitless power of the Sun to achieve greater energy security is tantalizing, even to the casual observer. All else being equal, the benefits of an effective SBSP system are potentially enormous, ranging from the revitalization of the beleaguered aerospace industry to a means of reducing global emissions of greenhouse gasses. As is the case with all public policies, though, all else is not equal and one must ask if it is truly the right time for the United States to embark on a project of such epic proportions such as SBSP.

With the economy in worse conditions than it has been at any point since, perhaps, the Great Depression, the last thing we need is to start throwing money hand over fist at a project that might end up being nothing more than a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

At this point, it does not seem to be exaggerating too much to say that the American economy is teetering on the edge of disaster. This is evidenced in no small part by ever-expanding federal budget deficits, the seizing up of credit markets for everything from new cars to large infrastructure projects, and increasing levels of unemployment. The issue, then, is not whether an effective and efficient SBSP system could provide the US—not to mention the rest of the world—enormous benefits but, rather, if using up scarce federal funding and investment dollars for a project of the scale and cost of SBSP is the wisest course of action at this moment in time.

With the economy in worse conditions than it has been at any point since, perhaps, the Great Depression, the last thing we need is to start throwing money hand over fist at a project that might end up being nothing more than a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. To this end, its seems increasing likely that the new Obama Administration and Congress will enact some form of green stimulus program aimed at bolstering terrestrial solar, wind, and other so-called alternative energy programs. The hope in enacting this type of stimulus will be that such federal assistance will help drive investment dollars towards green energy projects that hold the potential to keep the American economy out of complete economic demise, get people back to work, and shore up America’s international technological and economic competitiveness.

The issue with investing in SBSP at the current juncture is not that it would not produce similar, if not greater, positive economic outcomes. Instead, the issue is that those positive economic results will not be felt for some time whereas investments into terrestrial green energy projects can be rolled out and started in short order with near-immediate economic benefits. By the NSSO’s own estimate, SBSP technology will not be mature enough to supply a mere 10 percent of America’s baseload power needs until 2050 (NSSO 2007, p. 9). Even though SBSP could end up producing enormous benefits for all of society in the decades to come, we can not allow the best to become the enemy of the good.

The danger in making large investments into SBSP while the economy is reeling is that there is only so much money to go around. As such, there is a danger that scarce investment dollars will be siphoned way from more immediately viable and beneficial programs such as terrestrial green energy programs. Some three decades ago the Department of Energy reported in its review of SBSP that “every dollar spent on solar satellites will not be spent on terrestrial research and commercialization”. Unfortunately, it is these very programs that may be critical to preventing a deepening of the current economic crisis. It would be nothing less than a tragedy of political judgment if the country was forced to forgo the near-term economic benefits of terrestrial green energy programs simply to fund a SBSP program that will not be viable for years, if not decades.

The NSSO tangentially addresses this issue in that the report argues that the Department of Defense (DOD) should serve as the driving force behind SBSP development. The NSSO, rather simplistically, contends that the DOD is one of the only federal agencies for which SBSP currently makes economic sense. The NSSO reaches this conclusion by asserting that the military would achieve substantial cost savings by utilizing SBSP for overseas operations instead of continuing to bear the costs of traditional sources of energy that the NSSO estimates at approximately $1 per kilowatt hour. As such, the NSSO report concludes that the DOD should move forward with further investments into research and development of SBSP.

The report, unfortunately, seems to overlook the fact that defense budgets are already stretched thin given continued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in addition to the overall tightness in the broader federal budget. If the DOD were able to make investments into research and development for SBSP today and begin receiving energy beamed from space tomorrow for a price below that of its current energy supplies, such an investment would make sense. Yet, even with massive investment by the DOD into SBSP today, military units would not start being able to utilize these power sources for years.

Even with massive investment by the DOD into SBSP today, military units would not start being able to utilize these power sources for years.

As such, the problem with DOD investments in SBSP in the short term is that the military will end up having to pay not only for its traditional energy supplies but will have to also carry the extra burden of funding SBSP research and development costs. With readiness, maintenance, and procurement accounts already stretched thin, this is simply a situation the DOD can not afford. In a worst-case scenario, a mandate to pursue SBSP research and development could force the military to drastically scale back, if not cancel entirely, critical weapons programs to pay for an energy system that it will not be able to use for decades. It should go without saying that gambling with our national security today is too high of a price to pay for a source of energy that is decades away.

These arguments aside, there are clear benefits associated with the successful commercialization of SBSP. More importantly, there are proactive steps the government can take to help facilitate such an outcome that do not sacrifice the needs of the nation today to give it what it wants tomorrow. For instance, the DOD could announce, through formal agreement if necessary, that it is willing to become an anchor tenant for commercial power beamed from space at a cost at or below $1 per kilowatt hour.

Such an announcement and/or agreement would help drive private investment dollars into SBSP research and development as the economy begins to regain its footing. In short, investors would be compelled by the prospect of having an assured customer for the product should they successfully commercialize SBSP. Such an agreement would not require any federal outlays in the short term. Obviously, should industry begin to show progress towards accomplishing the goal of beaming energy from space at a cost at or below $1 per kilowatt hour it will become increasingly likely that the government will begin to supply additional investment capital down the line without running the risk of an economic boondoggle today. This approach is already being tried: earlier this month California utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) announced it would purchase electricity provided by a SBSP system planned by a startup company, Solaren, without any upfront investment by PG&E.

Were the DOD to undertake such an initiative, it is important that the military make it exceedingly clear that it is merely agreeing to purchase commercial power beamed from space and that it is not funding nor will it own any portion of the space-based solar power systems. This level of clarity is important to prevent the international community from misperceiving our intentions. It takes no stretch of the imagination to realize that one of the fears associated with SBSP is the possibility that it will be used as a space-based weapons system. Making it clear that the DOD is merely agreeing to purchase commercial power from space and not the actual space-based solar power systems should help allay these concerns.

This issue has little to do with the actual need for space-based weapons systems. Even for proponents of building and deploying space-based weapons doing otherwise makes little sense. Were the DOD to create the international perception that it is purchasing or funding space-based solar power systems, it is likely to fuel the fear that the DOD is actively pursuing the weaponization of space. Sending such a signal to the international community is likely to give further impetus for countries to develop their own brands of space-based weapons as well as the capabilities to destroy space-based systems from Earth. The danger is, then, that other countries are forced into a position of weaponizing space before the United States embarks on such a path but is then forced to in an attempt to respond to the actions of other nations.

This scenario could set off an action-reaction cycle that heightens the risk of a space-based arms race and all of the dangers that would pose to international stability. As such, preventing the international community from misinterpreting our interests in pursuing SBSP could be seen as an important means of preserving our dominance in space simply by not giving potential military competitors reason to ramp up their own space-based weapons programs. This, then, will allow the United States to pursue, if it chooses such a path, a space weapons program at its own pace instead of having its hand dictated by the actions of other nations.

It is also important for the DOD to place clear conditions on the price it is willing to pay for power beamed from space. As was discussed earlier, the NSSO believes that the DOD would be able to achieve cost savings if it were able to acquire power from SBSP systems at a price of $1 per kilowatt hour. Placing this price condition in any agreement for SBSP is important for two reasons. First, the condition will provide an added incentive to drive down the cost of beaming power from space. Obviously, this will increase the likelihood of the full-scale commercialization of SBSP by making it affordable for entities beyond the DOD.

A DOD agreement to puchase space-based solar power would help drive private investment dollars into SBSP research and development as the economy begins to regain its footing.

Second, were the DOD to make an unconditional agreement to purchase power from SBSP systems, industry is likely to take advantage of such an offer and pass along the majority of the costs for research and development to the military by charging exorbitant costs for the energy. This would force the DOD, again, to siphon resources from readiness, procurement, and maintenance accounts to pay for the project. In the same way that the DOD does not have the funds to pay for SBSP research and development outright because such funding runs the risk of forcing cuts to important weapons programs, it also does not have the funds to pay for the research and development of SBSP pushed through the back door.

If there were such a thing as a money tree and the American economy were not in dire straits it would make perfect sense for the government to embark upon an all-out path towards the development of space-based solar power. Unfortunately, money trees only exist in our dreams and, quite simply, the nation currently has better uses for the money that would need to be spent by funding SBSP research and development. Fortunately, however, there is a more moderate path the government can take, agreeing to purchase commercial power beamed from space, which does not require any federal outlays in the near-term but will effectively help speed the development of SBSP. This is one case where we might be able to have our cake and eat it too.