Space-Based Solar Power

a public discussion sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation

The Impact of International Partners on the Business Case and Space Law

Posted by Coyote on August 24, 2007

Yesterday I met with a world-famous, economics-minded, globetrotting, space cynic. Naturally, this was at one of the D.C. area’s Irish pubs, which various Internet sources claim is my typical work location. Um…yea. The discussion was too good to keep to myself, so here are some takeaway points for your consideration and comment:

ME: I believe we should seek broad international partnerships for three reasons. First, to reassure the world that that space-based solar power is not a pathway to weaponize space. Second, to garner early support in the international community for additions and changes to space law, customs, and codes of conduct that will be required to make space-based solar power a reality. Finally, broad international partners will help industry find broad international customers to buy our energy product.

Space Cynic: He cautioned that international partnerships add time and cost to everything. With a business case as fragile as space-based solar power, delays and disipating profits among several principle parties will make the business case even harder. In addition, he emphasized the need to create the most profitable business case to get space-based solar power off the ground. Finally, he asserted American industry and infrastructure must have first dibs in order to win domestic political support.

Others have told me that internationalization is a cause, not a business model.

We should keep in mind that government-to-government partnerships have a rocky history. The way America went about the International Space Station hurt a lot of feelings in the international community, but at least it is getting the job done. Europe’s Galileo efforts have been consensus focused and they are still struggling to field the system despite having spent a small fortune (we wish them well, all the same).

International business-to-business partnerships seem to work much better, and well within the business case. The example that comes most immediately to mind is Boeing’s work with numerous European and Asian firms for major subsystems for the Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft. It is not unreasonable to call those “internationally manufactured aircraft.”

So it seems, government should seek international partners to help make the permissive legal regime, while business should seek international partners (as will inevitably be necessary) to build the systems and “get ‘er done.”

Your comments?


11 Responses to “The Impact of International Partners on the Business Case and Space Law”

  1. swhite237 said

    International negotiations are tricky, at best. While I believe we should seek assistance and permission, from outside the U.S., I do not believe we should wait for permission from other countries to launch solar power stations into orbit. A nation with ulterior motives could halt or delay their construction.

  2. Coyote said

    Swhite237: Very good points. Do you have any thoughts about work that we can be doing in the space law and treaty venues that can help establish a permissive environment for spaced-based solar power operations? I guess I should first ask what legal and and treaty impediments do you foresee?

  3. cfrjlr said

    International partners could be considered if they bring something to the table in a big way.

    One country which comes to mind is Japan.

    Japan has already invested significantly in Space Based Solar Power research, so they have demonstrated they are already interested. They have a strong technology base and are economically prosperous. They are also highly motivated, having zero domestic energy sources, apart from nuclear. Japan is also a strategically friendly country.

    It might be advantageous to coordinate a major initiative with Japan.

    The only other country I am aware of who has done any work with power beam experiments is France (ref Grand Bassin experiment on La Reunion Island).

  4. Joe Russo said

    I would like to make three points:

    First: In relationship to “… codes of conduct…” See my 2006 work on Enforce Code of Universal Justice (ECUJ) taht I posted at

    “… The outer space arena will be any location was humanity is expanding or using resources in its expansion into outer space. This outline is the first draft to helping developing a civilized social system for all people entering in space. This includes anyone from any country as visitors, workers, explorers, government employees, etc…”

    Second: A functioning team is a good thing, including across the world, as for a true statement “….The way America went about the International Space Station hurt a lot of feelings…”. I think there is another side of that coin. If one reads books like The Invisible Powers by John Clancy and The Complete Negotiator by Gerard Nierngerg one can see that the other side of the coin is that this is normal as long as the team still works collectively to the goal.


    Boeing is a good example. I think we might want push that the USA should go for it. Then as we do, it might motivate other countries to bring value to the table and it might motivate others who claim we should use materials outside Earth to develop more than speculation. On the political end, I do not think an elective official will like the speculation and also taking the chance to ask an elected offical to wait for someone in another country to stop thinking about what they can do. However, I believe if we lead by example, the rest will follow.

    It is great to be part of the team.

  5. The Cynic, whilst a bit jetlagged from another trip to Sydney, would like to report that the rumors are false – although Coyote does indeed appear to have a desk, office chair, internet connection, and various space tragic posters adorning the walls of said Irish pub, the only “work” being done was the consumption of a few pints of Ireland’s best beer. 🙂

    Seriously, though, I think that it is crucial the international discussion does not become muddled – there is a fundamental difference between government to government international collaboration on a project (e.g., ISS or Galileo) which is fraught with difficulties, delays, political make-work, financial restrictions, and geopolitical posturing, any of which could seriously detract from a successful progam, and business to business collaboration, which happens all the time (the Apple laptop I am typing on, for example, was assembled in Taiwan of parts made from a multitude of countries) and quite effectively when the corporations are driving the outsourcing/partnering decisions due to business criteria (lower cost, availability of supply, quality, etc). even so, let’s not kid ourselves – Boeing outsources major sections to other countries for complex reasons which include offset/countertrade issues (billions of dollars in exports need to be balanced out after all) and to ensure that their planes are purchased when competing with Airbus.

    Given the somewhat pressing need to move this project from discussion to demonstration (before we even begin to tackle the REAL issues that will need to be overcome before we can scale this to a meaningful gigawatt-class system) IMHO it is imperative we stay focused on having the US drive this project. After all, it will be hard enough managing multiple agencies and private sector partners without getting mired in multi-year negotiations with international partners all looking for a spot at the trough to feed on for their own workers.

  6. allen said

    Why would there be business-to-business collaboration? If the profit opportunity that’d rationalize both the funding and the collaboration exists I’ve yet to see it, all the discussion about SPSS’s notwithstanding.

  7. shubber said

    Why would there be business-to-business collaboration? If the profit opportunity that’d rationalize both the funding and the collaboration exists I’ve yet to see it, all the discussion about SPSS’s notwithstanding.

    I didn’t say there necessarily *would* be B2B collaboration, but only that it is infinitely more preferable if you are discussing collaboration than G2G collaboration. The profit opportunity does not exist yet because there is no closed business case on SBSP at this point – just a lot of hypothesizing. Even if the case did close, it would by necessity require the efforts of multiple companies, as do most endeavors today in the manufacturing sector, because the skills, capabilities and resources required to do one of these types of satellites, plus ground station infrastructure, power distribution, etc., don’t all reside within a single firm that I am familiar with.

  8. allen said

    And the reason there’s no single firm or group of firms which might encompass all those skills, capabilities and resources is that there’s no reason for any company to develop them. There are no space-based profit opportunities which justify their development. That puts the cost of development almost exclusively on the pilot power-sat project but it also puts the cost of development of secondary and tertiary requirements on the pilot project as well.

    You’ll certainly get some overlap from conventional commercial uses but space is a specialized enough environment that there’ll be necessities that have no other purpose then use in space. There’ll be no other uses over which to spread those development costs.

    It’s a chicken-and-egg problem with no good reason to buy a chicken.

    A good part of the reason space technology has stagnated in my opinion, at least until fairly recently, is because once you’ve got weather, communication, military and scientific satellites in orbit there just aren’t any other good reasons to go into space. Yet they’re all tiny compared to even a small power-sat. How do you get from the ISS to the pilot power-sat which is going to be what? ten or a hundred times the size, mass and complexity?

  9. Sheri said

    At this point I would be more focused on U.S government/U.S. business relationships. These partnerships could prove extremely rewarding for both parties with well-established road maps. International partnerships are almost always more difficult, particularly considering the current state of U.S. ITAR restrictions which can throw a monkey wrench into almost any international research project.

  10. Edawg said

    .I agree with Sheri .space business can be used as a carrot in international politics.kind of like giving nuclear support to india.hear what the russians said in regard to putting a missle base on the moon?

  11. Neil Cox said

    I did this analysis to indicate that desert solar electricity is only about 1/10th as good as GEO or Solarsychronous SPS = solar power satellite. One half gigawatt is enough power for a large city. Very large cities need several gigawatts. Lets consider 12 square kilometers = 3 kilometers, East and West by 4 kilometers, North and South. There is a solar power tower close to the Southeast and Southwest corners of the property. They are about 200 meters tall. The land slopes up about 2% from South to North, but is otherwise quite flat. More slope would be better, but more is almost always hilly which is bad. You can see ideal sites are rare. Homes and ranches are practical except very close to the two solar power towers, but maximum height of trees and structures is typically 4 meters, but only 2 or 3 meters in a few spots. Exceptions are the 50,000 steerable mirror towers which range from 12 to 20 meters tall, a few of them with a wind turbine above the mirror. The mirrors average 100 square meters and produce an average of 400 watts per square meter in late June at 1 pm in their beam of sunlight. The heat exchangers near the top of the twin towers absorb an average of 2 gigawatts, and delivers 1.9 gigawatt to the steam turbines. Some additional energy comes from steam super heaters also on the tower. Electrical output is 0.5 gigawatts. With good luck the wind turbines and some photovoltaic panels produce 0.01 gigawatts for a total of 0.51 gigawatt put on the grid. Typically the grid accepts a bit less, so some heat energy is stored in the molton sodium-potassium nitrate in the heat exchanger, and a reserve tank. Sometimes this is sufficient to power the Southwest turbine at reduced power until an hour after sunset which is about the end of the peak demand period. Some additional mirrors may be located to the East of the towers to catch the late afternoon sun. While this would produce some evening reserve, it is likely not cost effective as the towers would be on private property.
    As you can imagine, 50,000 mirror towers on 12 square kilometers, is near the limit to prevent shading each other in the late afternoon, especially in December when the sun is low in the sky. Shading is rather severe shortly after sunrise, but that is not very important as the wholesale price of electricity is low mid morning, and it does take about two hours to warm the sodium-potassium nitrate to optimum operating temperature each morning/3 hours typically in December. The installation cannot be enlarged except at diminishing returns, as a 4 kilometer beam produces an illuminated spot bigger than the heat exchanger, even if the mirror is minutely concave. A precision concave mirror is much more costly than plain mirrors and a 500 square meter heat exchanger has considerable heat loss in a high wind. I suppose transparent shutters would help on windy days, and the heat exchanger could be a bit larger than 500 square meters.
    The start up crew arrives before sunrise, each morning at the SE tower, for the startup procedure. Typically they leave one technician to monitor, then go to the Southwest tower which will be in a poor position to receive energy until late morning. If there are no problems, all but two are off duty by one pm.
    Perhaps ten employees, including two trainees, are needed as the towers need to be observed during start up on Saturday, Sunday, sickdays and holidays as well as week days, so payroll is not a trivial expense, even with the systems highly automated. Please embellish, refute and/or comment. Neil

    w says: A receiver of similar size would be needed for the microwaves from a solar power satellite. It would also need operators and repairmen.

    Me: w is correct. The satellite and desert 1/2 gigawatt are a bit easier to operate and maintain if they use space mature solar panels without mirrors, turbines and generators, but the huge microwave source and huge antenna will be essentually new technology which likely cannot be fully automated until we have a decade of operating experience. This is another good reason to operate the first several SPS in LEO, so that technicians can live on the satellite. The temperature cycling is likely more severe in LEO than in the desert and it will be an 88 minute cycle instead of a 24 hour cycle. LEO is, however, mostly spared the weather and seasonal cycles, and a semipolar orbit allows beaming to most of the countries of Earth, during part of the peak demand period with as few as ten satellites, I think. Neil

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