Reflect Orbital Aims to Keep Sunlight Shining On Solar Farms After The Sun Goes Down

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For anyone with solar on their roof or a massive solar farm in the desert producing power, their production starts when the sun comes up and tapers off as the sun sets. A new interview on YouTube channel First Principles sat down with Reflect Orbital CEO Ben Nowak to unpack their vision for launching a constellation of solar reflectors in a sun-synchronous orbit.

SpaceX alum Nowak and his team at Reflect Orbital have a workaround for the current limitation that only allows the sun to hit the earth when the rotation of the earth allows it. Their bold plan starts with launching a constellation of satellites equipped with mylar reflectors that are pushed into orbit with the sole intent of reflecting the sun’s light down onto solar farms when the sun doesn’t normally shine.

An early test flight put a mirror on a hot air balloon to validate the efficacy of the concept. Image from: Reflect Orbital CEO Ben Nowak’s X Profile

By pushing an array of satellites out into the atmosphere, they’re able to get out from behind the earth’s shadow and back into the nearly endless supply of sunlight radiating through space. Adding a slight angle to the mirrors allows them to precisely reflect the sun’s rays down onto areas that would normally be in the dark.

Some carefully calculated math and physics are sprinkled into the equation, and they’re able to dynamically and continuously aim the sun’s light from space onto solar farms they’ve contracted with, increasing the production of solar farms with no incremental capital cost. It’s sunlight-as-a-service, from space. It might sound like the future, but the team believes they can accomplish this extremely cost-effectively, changing the global cost and supply of energy overnight (or at least while the sun isn’t shining).

A Sun-Synchronous Ring

To accomplish this feat, they’ll be deploying satellites into what they call a sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) at an altitude of 600 km above the Earth. Deploying a ring of 57 of these SSO mirrors would allow Reflect Orbital to provide an additional 30 minutes of sunshine to a solar farm anywhere on Earth.

Outside of that subscribed window of time, the same ring of satellites would be able to provide sunlight to anywhere else on earth that passes under that ring of satellites for a similar duration. For more localized support, Reflect Orbital has designed a special Helix orbit that would be more regionally focused and would only require an initial constellation of 20 satellite reflectors to start supplying meaningful amounts of on-demand sunlight. This more specialized orbit is well suited to areas like Southern California or Spain where solar assets are more concentrated in a single geography.

The Financials

The economics of Reflect Orbital’s solar satellites are already attractive, but they are looking towards a future where SpaceX’ Starship higher mass to orbit launches drive the cost per launch for one of their vehicles from the current $150,000 price tag on a Falcon 9 ride-share down to a meager $30,000 per satellite to orbit. Adding in the $100,000 cost of their satellites, it’s easy to see a path to profitability when Reflect Orbital is looking at generating approximately $175,000 worth of revenue per year, per satellite.

Economics get really attractive really quickly and with Starship slated to reduce the cost per launch 5-fold, Nowak is optimistic, to say the least. They currently are looking at a 10-year lifespan for their first generation satellites but have their eyes set on doubling that to a 20-year lifespan per vehicle in future builds, which only further enhances the economics.

Nowak’s vision is bold to say the least. He’s looking at a future where there are potentially 250,000 of these solar reflectors up in orbit, pumping down the sun’s rays to solar farms all around the world, increasing their capacity from being able to produce energy 25% of the day to potentially triple that amount.

His napkin math translates to some massive numbers that, even if that full scale vision is not realized, show a lot of upside potential. We’re basically sitting on massive numbers of solar farm assets on the ground that we’re going to pay for no matter what that we can tap into by simply launching mirrors into space and aiming them down onto the surface of the earth.

They’re currently planning a pilot launch of two satellites, as well as a larger launch after a round of seed funding. Beyond that though, they are looking more at the solar model of financing, where after having proven out the economics of the company with a small pilot-scale installation and a full ring of satellites, they would raise debt instead of more rounds of venture capital.

This makes sense, and it’s a financial model that’s already proven out with rooftop solar as well as solar farms, where there’s little doubt whether the sun will be shining or even whether or not there will be a return on the investment. If the sun stopped shining, little else matters, whether it be a loan from Bank of America or the output from your solar farm.

Daylight On Demand

Looking beyond solar farm production, Reflect Orbital is also planning to offer customers the ability to purchase a 5 km square block of sunlight. This can be used in areas where street lights don’t exist or are currently being installed. Cities can contract with Reflect Orbital to literally purchase sunlight for their areas.

It’ll be interesting to see how bright the light is and how residents would respond to daylight shining down on their cities for more hours in a day, but there are some special use cases where this could add a ton of value.

Imagine living up in the Yukon where you’re working on a construction project or simply suffering from seasonal depression due to a lack of regular sunlight exposure in the dead of winter. Cities or companies could purchase blocks of sunlight from Reflect Orbital, allowing their city centers to bathe in sunlight shone down from space in the dead of winter, when they would normally be living in darkness 22 hours out of the day.

Overall

Of course, all of these scenarios need to be fleshed out to determine the feasibility of the increased solar production, and vet the cost of sunlight to confirm the solution actually works as well as expected for both solar production and lighting. A healthy look at the unplanned externalities that will surely arise from shining down sunlight in areas where you shouldn’t be getting sunlight after dark also makes sense.

As with any new technology, there is sure to be resistance from a number of fronts, but more than any of that, it’s really exciting to see a startup pushing the envelope with new technologies that leverage some really basic concepts of physics, optics, reflectors, and most importantly and most exciting, extending the utility of existing solar assets on earth for more hours of the day.

If you zoom out beyond the Earth, the 3-dimensional output of the sun is truly staggering, and here on earth we barely harness a fraction of what’s hitting the surface of the Earth, let alone tapping into the true energy output of the sun. Reflect Orbital has bold visions for improving that, and it’ll be exciting to watch them flush out the economics, logistics, and feasibility of their bold vision.

From more information about Reflect Orbital, check out the full interview below, or head over to their website to see more about what CEO Co-Founder Ben Nowak is working on. You can also follow him on X at @bennbuilds.


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Kyle Field

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. As an activist investor, Kyle owns long term holdings in Tesla, Lightning eMotors, Arcimoto, and SolarEdge.

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