My, the space solar power field is getting interesting. Just last year the US Navy threw its hat into the ring, and now here comes aerospace powerhouse Northrop Grumman elbowing in. The company has just thrown down a cool $17.5 million to fund the new Space Solar Power Initiative at the California Institute of Technology, with the goal of developing a space-based solar array that can generate electricity as cheaply as fossil fuels.
That’s all well and good, but considering that the cost of wind and solar energy is sinking like a stone down here on Earth, you might be wondering if the new Northrop Grumman–Caltech venture is shooting at the wrong target.
Space Solar Power Races Against Fossil Fuels…And Renewable Energy
Actually, both the Navy and Northrop Grumman are on to something. Space-based solar power does have some significant advantages over terrestrial solar and wind farms as well as fossil fuels.
Real estate is the first thing that comes to mind. We’re huge fans of solar arrays that take advantage of rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, and other pre-developed sites, but there are also many solar farms being built on valuable real estate, including former farmland, but that has already given rise to tension with agriculture and habitat preservation.
Wind turbines have a bit more leeway when it comes to an open space footprint, but their sheer size limits site options.
The other main advantage of space solar power has to do with the cost of transmitting solar and wind-generated electricity. Some of the prime open space for solar development on Earth is located in desert regions and offshore ocean sites far from population centers. That means long transmission lines, which, aside from piling on the expense, also pose risks in terms of vulnerability to natural disasters and human intervention.
With space solar power, you don’t get all of those potential headaches — just beam it down and Bob’s your uncle.
To ice the cake, a network of space-based solar power arrays would provide a steady stream of solar power day and night, regardless of weather on Earth, reducing the need for expensive energy storage facilities.
If you want to see a really, really long list of benefits, head on over to the National Space Society.
Okay, So What’s Stopping Space Solar Power?
The new Northrop Grumman Space Solar Power Initiative at Caltech is going to address three main challenges than stand between you, me, and cost-competitive space-based solar arrays.
One is the weight of the photovoltaic cells. They have to be super lightweight to cut down on the expense of deployment, but they also have to be ultra-efficient.
Relatedly, another challenge is the weight of the structure upon which the solar cells will be arrayed.
The third challenge is how to get the solar-generated electricity down here from up there.
Since Caltech happens to run the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA, we’re guessing the institution has a leg up on things. Also of interest is Caltech’s long history of collaboration with Northrop Grumman, dating back to the 1930s.
The plan is to build the Space Solar Power Initiative up to include 50 researchers at Caltech, who will work with Northrop Grumman’s team to carry the project through from foundational research and validation of concepts, to building prototypes.
As for Northrop Grumman, the company is not particularly well known for prowess in the solar energy field, but that could be about to change. Just last year, ARPA-E, the Energy Department’s cutting edge funding agency, took Northrop Grumman under its wing to develop a new hybrid concentrating solar system that deploys a thermo-acoustic engine to generate electricity directly from solar-derived heat.
Group Hug For Space Solar Power
If this space solar power thing really does take off, we’re going to get ready for a giant group hug for US taxpayers.
That’s partly because we’re assuming that Caltech’s work with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, will at least indirectly play into the new Space Solar Power Initiative.
We’re also feeling huggy because of the aforementioned US Navy space solar power project. According to the folks over at the Naval Research Laboratory, the transmission of solar generated electricity from space to earth is something of a no-brainer (here’s another take on that topic), so the main stumbling block is just the weight issue.
The Navy is also anticipating that the space array would be assembled robotically, which practically eliminates the need to send solar workers into space.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Naval Research Laboratory.