International Policy Digest

Tech /19 Jul 2019

Shoot for the Sun: Why the U.S. Should Prioritize Space-Based Solar Power

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered his historic “Moon Shot” speech before a joint session of Congress, calling for an ambitious space exploration program to put Americans in space before the decade’s end.

His speech came just four months after being sworn in as president. At the time, President Kennedy felt that the United States had to respond to the then-Soviet Union, who had just successfully launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite. Kennedy convinced the American people that the time for the United States to win the space race was nigh.

Today, his speech is still regarded as one of the most influential speeches of all time. His message rings nostalgic today as the United States is falling behind in the realm of space, science, and technology compared to rising global powers, China and Russia.

But hope is not yet lost. Scientists have come up with the concept of space-based solar power (SBSP), a revolutionary energy system that marries cutting-edge space technologies and large-scale renewable power with a potential to meet all of humanity’s energy needs.

The United States should prioritize the development and deployment of SBSP by 2050 as part of its grand strategy. Not only does this technology have the potential to meet the global demand for energy, but its development will also increase U.S. competitiveness in space technology and the renewable energy sector. Its deployment will secure America’s place as the world’s superpower.

The basic idea of SBSP is simple: go where the sun always shines.

This system will launch into geostationary orbit multiple solar-power satellites, each collecting raw solar power and transmitting it back to earth. In theory, this technology could be scaled to meet global energy needs by providing unlimited green, renewable energy.

This strategic source of energy will transcend our fossil fuel regime. As of 2017, renewables only made up a total of 18 percent of the U.S. energy mix. Natural gas and coal still remain the top producers of electricity in the U.S. Furthermore, the U.S. transportation sector still heavily relies on imported oil, despite 40 years of energy policy focused on energy independence.

It comes as no surprise that the United States remains the top polluter in the world by cumulative CO2 emissions. Despite China’s rapid growth in emissions over the last few decades, it still comes in at less than 50 percent of the U.S. total emissions.

Renewable energy is the way of the future—not just for the United States, but the entire world. The world’s population has grown by almost 20 percent in the last 15 years alone. To effectively ensure energy security for the U.S., we must consider technologies from both domestic and international perspectives. SBSP allows us to achieve both and more.

U.S. SBSP will ensure domestic and international access to energy as an energy provider. Each SPS (solar-powered satellites) could service multiple markets that provide power to urban centers and even to remote locations around the world. Each individual SPS would transmit as much as 1-10 GW of constant energy, compared to Earth-based solar power that requires massive amounts of land for little output—1 km2 for every 20-60 MW generated.

China is currently taking the lead in solar power, both in installation as well as solar technologies markets. The U.S. has no national renewable portfolio standards, nor national initiatives that incentivizes an energy transition to renewables.

Unlike our position in the 1960s, the United States must be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to space and renewable technologies. China, Russia, and Japan have already expressed interest in SBSP with national policies to back up their interest. Some of these competitors do not share the same governmental barriers in attempting to begin their programs.

In his famed speech, President Kennedy states:

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

It is time that the United States return to its ambitious nature and technological optimism that was once a part of our identity. We must make national decisions and marshal the necessary national resources required to deploy this technology. Furthermore, we must, once again, take leadership in the realm of space and technology. To do otherwise would be to effectively give up our place as the world’s superpower.