China Is Winning the Solar Space Race
The United States should be leading on the energy of the future—but it keeps blowing its chances.
Every disaster movie starts with the president ignoring a scientist. But humanity’s survival isn’t a movie. If any U.S. president in the last five decades had had the foresight to take space-based solar power technology seriously, the incoming man-made climate disaster could already have been averted with a clean, constant, and limitless power source that costs less than burning fossil fuels—and the United States could be leading the field.
Today, if reports are accurate, China is at the forefront of the technology, which is basically solar power as you know it, except on steroids: It can collect energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And instead of taking up millions of acres of land on the ground, space solar farms would be located in geosynchronous orbit, about 22,000 miles above sea level—far above pesky things like clouds, rain, and the cycle of day and night that make peak terrestrial solar power so intermittent. China plans on putting a commercial-scale solar power station in orbit by 2050, an accomplishment that would give it bragging rights as the first nation to harness the sun’s energy in space and beam power down to Earth.
And that’s where things start to get prickly. First, China’s space program is part and parcel of China’s military program, according to a recent report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. This means that the army oversees China’s space activities, with “most of China’s ostensibly civilian space activities [having] dual-use applications.”
Second, China’s space ambitions are all about the money—and an integral part of the country’s national economic rejuvenation and development goals. So if the space-based solar power demonstrator the Chinese Communist Party plans to have online as soon as next year is successful, more countries could potentially be enticed into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign-policy venture, the Belt and Road Initiative. This cheap, emissions-free power would be hard for many countries to turn down and would dramatically deepen China’s political leverage—if not give Beijing de facto control of countries that buy it—advancing China’s goal of creating the world’s first global electrical grid.
Meanwhile, the United States has been sitting on space-based solar power technology since 1968, when NASA advisor and Apollo 11 project manager Peter Glaser published his concept of a solar power satellite as a means of harnessing solar energy for transmission to Earth in the journal Science. To top that off, Isaac Asimov, one of the most celebrated and prolific science fiction writers of all time, had predicted the idea in 1941, writing about a space station transmitting energy collected from the sun to planets here and there using microwave beams. In 1983, Asimov wrote again about solar power stations, predicting that they would be up and running, oops, by 2019.
It’s not like NASA hasn’t tried to get the space-based solar power ball rolling, providing various presidential administrations with development and evaluation reports and feasibility studies, and even suggesting it as the primary power source for a first-generation, continuously occupied lunar base. “One of the most significant challenges to the implementation of a continuously manned lunar base is power,” researchers wrote in the latter report. “Using an orbiting space based solar power station to generate electrical power and beam it to a base sited anywhere on the moon should therefore be considered. The technology to collect sunlight, generate greater than the estimated 35 kilowatts of [continuous] power [required for the lunar base], and beam it to the surface using microwaves is available today.”
Still, for a variety of reasons—most, if not all, having to do with a lack of money—there are no active space-based solar power missions on NASA’s books, much to the consternation of hundreds, if not thousands, of NASA engineers and scientists past and present who see space-based solar power as the project of their dreams.
One of these scientists is John Mankins, a former NASA physicist known for his work on space-based solar power and a man of considerable patience. He not only spent 25 years at NASA and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory advocating for space solar with nothing to show for it, but he also recently wasted hours walking me through the McCain National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019 to find any sign of space-based solar power that might be buried in that bureaucratic monstrosity. Mankins and others have recalibrated their thinking and are confident that space-based solar power costs are no longer absurd.
That said, aside from China, the space agencies of Japan, the European Union, and India are working to get their own space-based solar power programs off the ground as well. Japan’s JAXA deserves an extra shoutout. Mankins said JAXA is currently working on a new and improved road map for its program; this in addition to working on everything including space elevators, space junk removal, looking for water on asteroids, and building motor home-sized moon rovers. And at the end of May, the governments of the United States and Japan, both major partners on the International Space Station, agreed to further cooperation in space that could include flying Japanese astronauts to the moon.
But it’s China’s interest in space-based solar power—and the United States’ apparent disinterest—that hold the most geopolitical implications. Energy plays a decisive role in global geopolitics and international order. It has buttressed the rise of great powers, propagated the genesis of alliances, and, too often, sparked the emergence of conflict and wars. Bottom line? In the worst case, the country that first harnesses the power of the sun from space wins, hands down. While earthbound renewable energy is largely a private sector thing, space-based solar power, at least in this scenario, would be a single-source, state-based game-changer that could easily be exploited for geopolitical gain. China’s steady pursuit of militarizing commercial space technologies only makes things more complex—or ominous, depending on one’s perspective.
Being the first mover, of course, doesn’t give China a categorical or insurmountable advantage. For all we know now, their space-based solar power technology is straight from the NASA open-source playbook. But that means that the United States has to act quickly—not only to counter inevitable technology evolution, but also to at least keep pace with the energy market evolution brought on by the climate crisis.
To be sure, getting the current U.S. administration to buy into and commit to space-based solar power is an iffy proposition. As it stands, NASA has to grovel for funding, even as the White House accelerates major mission dates. (Curiously, though, it gets money for things it doesn’t even ask for, like an extra $125 million to develop nuclear rockets.)
That puts the United States at a critical moment. Will a 2020 U.S. presidential candidate latch onto space-based solar power as a way to make the Green New Deal a global endeavor? Maybe. Will commercial companies—American or otherwise—along with countries already working on it, partner up in the name of big science to work together to make it happen? Perhaps. Or will China’s space-based solar power play result in an extraordinary hegemonic shift in global dominance? It’s looking that way—and that keeps me up at night.