A newly released NASA study examines the feasibility and potential impact space-based solar power could have on the world’s sustainable clean energy needs. The Biden administration and Congress now need to step up their clean energy game and mature this technology in order to assure American leadership in this critical, new high frontier of clean energy technology.

Space-based power beaming essentially works like our space-based telecommunications systems except for the fact that it beams usable energy instead of data. The idea is to use huge solar arrays parked in space to collect and beam solar energy down to remote ground stations on Earth via focused microwaves. Space solar power stations could beam collected energy to anywhere they can see; the transmitted energy can pass through clouds. The stations could be placed in orbits that provide power to literally anywhere on Earth’s surface, day or night. The resulting energy can then be easily converted into electricity on Earth, as zero-emissions clean energy.

Once demonstrated, space-based power beaming could become the energy source that moves us past fossil fuels in a way that is equitable, evolvable, scalable and distributable. Space-based solar power beaming could deliver energy that is cheaper, cleaner and more accessible than many alternatives.

The new NASA report, withheld for more than a year for technical and political review, shows that there appear to be no clear technical showstoppers for an in-space solar power demonstration mission. It also showed that tapping into technologies under development today by NASA’s global partners could make space solar power beaming feasible soon — within two decades. And because pieces of this promising technology are currently or soon to be available, development requires no miracles — just commitment.

While development of a space solar power beaming system will require a lot of work to get from today’s concepts to tomorrow’s demonstration mission, the technology holds tremendous returns for domestic industrial advancement, space sector expansion and abundant clean energy that can help us meet America’s net-zero goals.

If the clean energy provided by a space-based solar power system accounted for just five percent of our national energy consumption, it would significantly reduce our carbon footprint.

Details on possible space-based solar power satellites from NASA’s new report. Credit: NASA

Securing American leadership in space-based power

Experts in the field point out the many potential benefits of space-based solar power for meeting immediate energy and societal needs. It demonstrates how our growing space technology and industry can return sustainable and significant value back to Earth, how net-zero can be achieved, and how America can ambitiously lead in troubled times. Plans by the Europeans, Japanese, the United Kingdom and the Chinese show an appetite to move forward on this technology. Sadly, the U.S. remains largely on the sidelines. Make no mistake: whichever nation develops this technology first will hold the high ground in future energy supply systems.

To move the needle forward on space-based solar power, the White House should establish a small interagency Space Energy Working Group, led by the president’s Science Advisor, to explore a whole-of-government effort to field a space solar power beaming demonstration system for domestic energy, with a clear path to transitioning the capability to an industry-managed test deployment within a decade.

Such a working group could establish mechanisms that facilitate an innovative industrial engagement strategy. This working group should assign roles and establish policy recommendations to address any transmission issues necessary to ensure space-based solar power beaming can be integrated into the national grids.

At the same time, Congress should allocate an independent appropriations line within the lead agency that permits transfer of resources to support a demonstration project. Given that this is both a space and energy project that has obvious national security implications, a $50 million start-up cost to an expeditious agency like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would help buy down risk.

DARPA researchers and engineers could then make progress toward power beaming, deployable lightweight structures, control systems for large structures, high power electronics, in space assembly, and new flight dynamics algorithms.

A call for a demonstration mission

Policy makers should direct DARPA to stand up a space power technology program to develop the architecture, technology development and model development of a 5-kW demonstration mission by 2028, with a goal of a 1-MW system by 2035.

Following a first demonstration mission, a reasonable path toward development of space solar power beaming could fuse a large public investment with major industrial players (think the aerospace prime contractors), to build and demonstrate a megawatt-scale system. Once a demonstration mission is up, smaller companies may spin out from the government-led project to develop and build subsystems and emerge as new players.

The White House and Congress should not turn their backs on the chance for America to lead on a new clean energy technology that has tremendous potential. Space-based solar power connects the ambition and inspiration of space exploration with tangible benefits to Earth by addressing the persistent and growing need for more clean energy.

It takes very little imagination to see how space-based solar power beaming technology is not only becoming feasible, but also a clean energy solution that’s exactly what America needs. The path to net zero will not be found by drilling down, but by building up above.

David Steitz is a communications and space technology consultant. He served as NASA’s deputy associate administrator for technology, policy and strategy and as the agency’s deputy chief technologist until retiring from NASA in 2022, concluding a 32-year career at NASA Headquarters in Washington.