Problem Background & Potential Impact:
Energy, climate, water, and sustainable development are linked challenges that affect national, international, and human security, and impose limits on the prosperity of the world. Our existing energy regime undermines our security. The means of production are largely under the control of others. The wealth generated often empowers our ideological adversaries. The system causes environmental damage, and current carbon based resources are known to be limited. The emerging threat of a resource war has already tinged recent and current conflicts. Moreover, today, developing countries and disaster response teams face similar energy challenges to those presented to our forward-deployed armed forces in terms of resource scarcity and lack of power infrastructure. No compelling solution has emerged that advances security and prosperity, and that clearly promotes U.S. interests abroad. Though these problems are formidable, a remarkable opportunity exists for the U.S. or another motivated nation to become a power utility for the world.
The Big Idea:
Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) has been known to be technically feasible since the 1970s and to be scalable to all global energy demand, providing 24-hour pollution-free renewable energy. SBSP is a grand idea and forms the basis of a narrative of a legitimate power pursuing a global public good. Japan and China have active programs, ESA has a minor program but the U.S. does not. India’s former President (and pioneer scientist in their military and civil space programs) championed the concept for U.S.-India collaboration at the Head-of-State level. The UAE is considering investing $18B in the concept, recognizing the energy leadership potential for “beyond oil.” Leadership by our strategic competitors in a new global energy regime (and potentially 5 million jobs per the IAA) is not in our global interest economically or strategically. We want to be the power leading our allies in supplying clean power to the developing world, not our strategic competitor. DoD reviewed the concept in 2007 and found that “[SBSP] does present a strategic opportunity that could significantly advance US and partner security, capability, and freedom of action and merits significant further attention on the part of both the U.S. Government and the private sector.” SBSP was one of 10 initial white papers circulated by the administration on Change.gov. It was the highest rated idea on OpenEnergy, OpenNASA, and OpenOSTP. The US can advance its narrative power in the near-term, and actual economic development and security power in the long-run, by leading the development of SBSP.
Ideal End State (What success will look like and its impact):
Within 5 years, the U.S. with key allies has retired the technological risk and demonstrated the technology with the first on-orbit prototype. Within 10 years, the U.S. is the chief supplier of new energy to the developing world, providing 24-hour, renewable energy that does not contribute to climate change. Strengthened ties with partner nations have averted resource conflicts and have reasserted U.S. leadership in diplomacy, international aid, innovation, and space development. Manufacture and sales of high-tech aerospace equipment helps ensure an ever-increasing balance of trade, and a robust U.S. industry of 5 million jobs ensures we can help power disaster relief efforts around the world, deliver power to our military installations globally, and to the world at large safely and effectively. A host of new industries and space industrialization has been spawned as a result of our foresight in taking the initiative in fostering the utilization of this technology.
Five Critical Next Steps to Implementing the Idea:
1. Assign DARPA or a similar agency the technical mission of advancing SBSP as critical to avoiding strategic technological surprise, and to lay the groundwork outlined above. Create a stand-alone joint program office.
2. Have ASDRE engage in partnerships with DOS, USAID, DOE, NASA, DOC, formalized thru a Memorandum of Understanding with the ultimate goal of providing energy to the U.S. and team members and advancing SBSP to economic viability (Grid Parity).
3. Create a joint entity with leadership by DOS, USAID, and USTDA to build and maintain international partnerships with allies including those within the EU/NATO (France, UK, Germany, ESA), Japan, UAE, India, and others.
4. Coordinate via the DOS/USAID/USTDA entity to identify first and second tier partners to form an Intergovernmental Agreement, as was done for the development of the International Space Station, and for organizing a framework for contributions of technological development and to identify power-receiving station locations across the world.
5. Pursue special funding authority through legislative relief process to allow nondefense committees (NASA, Energy) to allocate funding to the SBSP program office to develop the pathfinder demonstration mission described above to provide 1-10 MW from low-earth orbit as a precursor to a multi-GW geosynchronous satellite.
Metrics Proposed to Track Progress:
The production and delivery of electricity inherently lend themselves to a range of useful metrics. For the proposed system, there are four principal quantitative metrics that can be used to track progress toward economic competitiveness, much as has been done with other clean energy technologies in the form of Levelized Cost Of Electricity (LCOE):
1. Cost of launch per unit mass: this quantity has fallen in recent years and could be driven lower by increased demand for launches.
2. Cost of space hardware per unit mass: by employing a modular, mass-produced approach to spacecraft construction, rather than the one-of-a-kind tack traditionally taken, this metric can likely be dropped to levels akin to those for consumer electronics
3. Specific power in “watts to the user” per kilogram of the satellite: this metric has shown recent improvements, and efforts currently being pursued in government and industry promise further improvement.
4. Lifetime of the satellite: already often measured in decades for existing systems, this metric could be rendered moot by a continuously upgraded system. Since electricity costs vary enormously across the world, it will be possible to address those with the highest cost earliest. A unique and profound feature of the system is its ability to provide power essentially anywhere in the world on demand. For forward operating bases shackled with enormous fully-burdened costs of fuel, this would prove game-changing. Similarly, in infrastructure-deficient developing countries or disaster areas with destroyed facilities, the ability to get power when needed would be a huge boon.
A confluence of factors makes now the time to embark on this endeavor. Recent advances in solid-state electronic amplifiers, space robotics, and wireless power transmission mean no fundamentally new technology is needed. The resources required are modest compared to the potential payoff, much as the government investments and initiatives in the 1960s led to a flourishing communications satellite industry and those in the 1970s led to GPS and satellite imagery, with their concomitant and ubiquitous benefits. A joint program office, led by DARPA or a similar agency, funded at $10 million for two years would rapidly lay the groundwork needed to execute studies, project planning, and to outline and address system integration challenges. A subsequent ~$100 million technology maturation effort would provide for a pathfinder demonstration mission and address any points of concern. An investment by U.S. and international government partners and agencies of ~$10 billion over ten years, leveraging international agreements like those employed in the development of the International Space Station, would yield a pathfinding demonstration prototype en route to the operational system. A major ally, Japan has already begun this process and has performed compelling wireless power transmission demonstrations in the past year. They have also started the process of addressing spectrum and legal requirements with the International Telecommunications Union. The feasibility of the idea has been positively reviewed by NASA, NRC, IAA and China, which has an active development program. The concept dovetails with forward-looking DoD projects that are implementing electrically powered naval vessels, light armor, and aircraft.