Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Whatever Happened to Space Based Solar Power?

After a promising start, which included strong advocacy during the 2008 US presidential election, a 2009 Symposium on Solar Energy from Space and the release of a follow-on study in 2011 titled "Space Solar Power — The First International Assessment of Space Solar Power: Opportunities, Issues and Potential Pathways Forward," the current crop of space solar power (SSP) advocates, which include the National Space Society (NSS) and Ontario based Space Canada, seem to have dropped the ball in their quest to popularize, commercialize and close the business case for gigantic orbiting solar power arrays beaming gigawatts of power back to Earth.


It's not that people (and especially scientists) have stopped talking about SSP. It's just that, unlike other high cost, high risk endeavors like space resource utilization (embraced by a variety of companies like Planetary Resources and Moon Express) and space access (Space-X, Sierra Nevada Corporation, the Golden Spike Company and others), very few commercial companies have so far decided to jump aboard the SSP bandwagon.

Part of the reason for this commercial reticence is outlined on the NSS Space Solar Power website, which tracks SSP activities. According to the website, the development cost for SSP is large and the business case for the development of the technology is undefined:
Yes, space solar power development costs will be very large, although much smaller than American military presence in the Persian Gulf or the costs of global warming, climate change, or carbon sequestration. The cost of space solar power development always needs to be compared to the cost of not developing space solar power.
Of course, SSP isn't competing directly with the American military presence in Persian Gulf (or anywhere else for that matter) or even against any of the other listed items (although a case can be made that new power sources are one component of the solution to global warming, climate change and carbon sequestration). Even worse from a business perspective, the up-front cost of not developing a new technology is always zero, just like the up-front cost of someone not buying any item is also always zero.

This makes for a very poor business case, since the up-front costs of rolling out SSP projects are typically in the range of tens of billions of dollars.

Ground station for the Desertec Foundation 100GW SSP Project. Its very large.

Even a simple calculation of an order of magnitude estimate to replace conventional power plants on Earth once they've reached the end of their operational life cycle to use as a baseline for estimating overall savings if SSP is adapted is problematic.

The total to replace power plants at the end of their life cycle is a cost which is spread out over a myriad and disparate group of owners/ financiers who can pay for new projects out of existing cash-flow under existing financial models and have a solid understanding of their existing technology with no new requirements for additional innovations or developments.

Space based solar power advocates can currently make no similar claim and don't really even know the overall cost of SSP implementation since it's never been done before and acknowledged technical hurdles remain. Of course, this goes to the core of the business case because it means that, in essence, there isn't one.

And instead of generating the small low cost, proof-of-concepts needed to validate assumptions one at a time and move the business case forward, SSP supporters seem content to continue to advocate large, expensive, all or nothing projects which are fun to talk about, but don't often accomplish anything.

Even the only well known company so far brave enough to have jumped into the commercial market, US based Solaren Corp., seems to have bitten off more than it can chew. The firm signed a power utility agreement in 2009 with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) to beam power generated from a 200-megawatt orbiting solar farm to a ground station near Fresno, CA. The contract calls for power deliveries from the not yet built facilities to begin in 2016 and any reasonable inventory of assets strongly suggests that the firm is currently not in a position to fund the infrastructure required to fulfill the contract.

As outlined in the December 2nd, 2009 Space.com article "Controversy Flares Over Space-Based Solar Power Plans," estimates for the materials needed to construct an orbiting solar farm capable of delivering on the Solaren contract range from between 25-400 metric tons, which would require an estimated 5-20 launch vehicles with a payload capacity comparable to the recently retired space shuttle.

This simply isn't going to happen anytime soon.

So the scientists continue on their merry way to talk about everything except funding the business case. Take for example, the three most recent articles posted on the NSS Space Solar Power website. These include the November 2nd, 2012 Times of India article "China proposes space solar power collaboration with India," the October 22nd, 2012 Aviation Week article "Space Solar Power Looks For Shortcuts," and the  October 18th, 2012 Aviation Week article"Clearing the Obstacles to Space Solar Power."

The first article highlighted ongoing discussions between the Chinese and Indian governments relating to academic collaboration on space missions and especially SSP. The second and third articles discussed a whole new series of academic presentations relating to SSP technical issues, which were presented at the 63rd International Astronautical Congress in Naples, Italy last October.

But talk is cheap and until Solaren finds the assets needed to follow through with its power generation contract or some other private firm brings some serious expertise and funding to the SSP table, talk is all that the space solar power advocates can reasonably expect to receive.

Blah blah blah...

1 comment:

  1. John Strickland (http://www.nss.org/about/bios/strickland.html), a member of the board of directors of the National Space Society, sent the e-mail below for publication.

    Do not be discouraged.

    The NSS has held an SBSP symposium every year for the last several years at the ISDC. We will have one this year at the ISDC in San Diego with 4 sub-tracks.

    There will be more university-student-created visualizations presented. We have ties with Dr. Kalam, the former President of India, who is an SBSP supporter. There are weekly meetings by NSS members to support SBSP.

    On the issue of when we can start building SBSP, be patient. We have to wait for the launch prices to get down to a certain point. Unless you are a billionaire and can invest hundreds of millions in a company, all we can do is offer public support.

    The exact point is not clear, since it depends on the perception of the value of power production by business and politics.

    Within 2 years, some launches will be available for 4 to 10 times less money than government launches. SpaceX will continue to push launch costs down, driving actions within the entire rocket business.

    The competitors can change and try to catch up or they will have their "IBM moment".

    Within this decade we may have re-usable Falcon rocket boosters. Even if Musk does not support SBSP personally, I doubt that he would turn down a lot of launches.

    John Strickland


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