Publications

- October 1, 2021: Vol. 8, Number 9

Bright side of the earth: Space-based solar power concept gaining altitude

by Mike Consol

Space-based solar power — which, in theory, could produce a global supply of affordable, inexhaustible, clean energy — appears to have captured the imagination and commitment of public and private organizations around the world.

In August, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) received a $100 million gift from the Donald Bren Foundation in support of the institution’s Space Solar Power Project, which seeks to collect solar energy in space and transmit it wirelessly to Earth through microwaves. Ali Hajimiri, professor of electrical engineering at Caltech and co-director of the space solar program, was quoted in Forbes saying: “Above the Earth, there’s no day and night cycle and no clouds or weather or anything else that might obstruct the sun’s rays, so a constant power source is available.”

Though it sounds like science fiction, scientists working on behalf of the Pentagon have successfully collected solar energy in outer space and beamed it back to Earth.

The Pentagon is not alone in this effort. Euro zone scientists are making strides in trying to turn space-based power stations into a reality. The European Space Agency has realized the potential of these efforts and is now looking to fund such a project, predicting the first industrial resource humans will get from space is “beamed power.” The concept calls for a space-based solar power station could orbit to face the sun 24 hours a day. Because Earth’s atmosphere absorbs and reflects some of the sun’s light, solar cells orbiting above the atmosphere would be capable of receiving more sunlight and producing more energy than earthbound solar farms.

The euro zone and Pentagon will also be competing with China, which announced two years ago that it’s planning to build the world’s first solar power station to be positioned in Earth’s orbit.

The private sector is also getting involved. Space Energy, Inc., led by entrepreneur Peter Sage, is seeking to commercialize the technology.

The $100 million Caltech gift was made anonymously in 2013 but only recently disclosed as the school’s solar space program nears a significant milestone: a test launch of technology-demonstrator prototypes that collect sunlight, convert it to electrical energy and transfer it back to the planet.

Bren, a real estate mogul and chairman of the Irvine Co., is a member of the Caltech board of trustees. He first learned about the potential for space-based solar energy manufacturing in 2011 in a Popular Science article and approached Caltech’s then-president Jean-Lou Chameau to discuss creating a research project dedicated to space-based solar power.

 

Mike Consol (m.consol@irei.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.

 

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