Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
October 12th, 2007

Future of Energy – Leading Scientists and Thinkers on Energy – John C. Mankins

In this ninth installment of our on-going series of interviews with some of the leading thinkers and scientists on the subject of energy, we interview John C. Mankins.Facing and solving the multiple issues concerning energy is the single most pressing problem that we face as a species. There is a lot of media coverage about energy, alternative energy and global warming, but what has been missing is the knowledge and point of view of scientists, at least in the main stream media. If you have missed the first eight interviews, please scroll down the right side of the page and click on ‘Scientists — Interviews’.

John C. Mankins is the President of ARTEMIS Innovation Management Solutions LLC, a research and development management consulting start-up that solves tough innovation challenges for government, industry and not-for-profit clients, and Co-founder of Managed Energy Technologies LLC, a new energy technology start-up that aspires to transform solar energy solutions for terrestrial and space markets. He is internationally recognized as a successful leader in space systems and technology innovation, as a highly effective manager of large-scale technology R&D programs, and as an accomplished communicator. He is also one of the foremost authorities on the subject of space solar power (SSP). Mr. Mankins led NASA’s SSP “Fresh Look Study” in the mid-1990s, managed the SSP Exploratory Research & Technology (SERT) Program, and is the creator of several important SSP systems concepts, including the SunTower, the Solar Clipper, and others. He serves as the President of the Sunsat Energy Council (also known as the “Space Power Association”), a non-profit international group founded in 1978 by Dr. Peter Glaser, that promotes the potential of SSP for future application on Earth and in space. Mr. Mankins has authored numerous papers and articles on the topic of SSP and has testified before the U.S. Congress on the topic on several occasions.

Evolutionshift.com: John, you are regarded as one of the foremost authorities in Space Solar Power, also called Space Solar Energy. Briefly, what was your journey that led you to this position of recognition and expertise?

Mankins: I certainly had read about solar power satellites (SPS) for years, but I first looked seriously at the concept beginning in 1995. At that time, I was the Manager for Advanced Concepts Studies in NASA’s Office of Space Access and Technology, working for a great space visionary, Mr. Ivan Bekey. Ivan gave me the assignment to take a “fresh look” at space solar power to see whether new technologies that had emerged since the last major NASA design studies in the 1970s might have made possible systems concepts that were more technically and/or economically feasible than those of 20 years earlier. This assignment resulted in what became known as NASA’s “Fresh Look Study” of space solar power—and a enduring belief on my part that this promising concept deserved further consideration, and support.

Evolutionshift.com: In your presentation at the Foundation for the Future Energy conference your presentation pointed out the fact that the early work on SSP was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Has anything significant happened since then, and if not, why not?

Mankins: So much has happened in technology since the 1960s, it’s hard to name just a few topics. Here are some of the most important for space solar power, however. First, there have been enormous advances in solar power generation. Photovoltaic arrays have gone from less than 10% efficiency (turning 1/10th of the incoming sunlight into electricity), to more than 40% efficiency. And, solar array efficiencies are on their way to 50% efficiency or more. These advances all solar arrays to be reduced in size by as much as a factor of four or five—which would be tremendous for a large space solar power system. Another set of really important advances have occurred in solid state electronics. In the past 40 years, efficiencies, processing speeds, and operating temperatures have all increased radically. These improvements are also tremendously important for space solar power. Finally, everyone is aware of the tremendous advances in computing and robotics. Of course, this progress is wildly important for large space infrastructure concepts such as space solar power. Whereas in the 1970s, it appear that space solar power systems concepts would require 100s or 1000s of astronauts working in huge space factories to assemble them in space, now it is clear that these enormous systems-of-systems could be largely “self-assembling”, with the assistance of autonomous robotic “mid-wives”. All-in-all, space solar power is much, much more promising now than appeared to be true in the 190s and 1970s.

Evolutionshift.com: So SSP kind of fell through the cracks so to speak, right?

Mankins: Well, space solar power was a pretty good fit for NASA in the 1990s—when the Agency’s “Human Exploration and Development of Space” had as one of its goals the promotion and R&D that could enable new space industries such as space solar power. However, at the turn of the century, NASA’s goals were changed to focus more strictly on human space flight, space science and aeronautics. A wide range of small programs—such as the Centers for the Commercial Development of Space—were cancelled, as was NASA’s modest R&D investment in space solar power technology and studies. Of course, at the U.S. Department of Energy, the focus is on energy technology for terrestrial markets—including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear power, energy efficiency renewable (ground) energy technologies, etc.—and also a range of basic energy sciences research topics. There are modest DOE responsibilities for nuclear batteries (called Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators) for use in the outer solar system—but not for space energy in general, and certainly not for space solar power satellites. So, in a very real sense, after the studies in the 1990s were terminated, space solar power did “fall through the cracks”.

Evolutionshift.com: Clearly, the U.S. government needs to lead the way on this. Should a new department be created or can NASA and the DOE work together on this?

Mankins: The question is, how best for the U.S. government to take a leadership role in space solar power? That really depends on the policies worked out by the Administration and the Congress. NASA, DOE or any other Agency will not work on space solar power unless the Administration gives them the assignment to do so. Lots of organizations could take a hand in this; it is such an enormous challenge. During 2002-2004, NASA worked with the National Science Foundation on space solar power R&D—a partnership that was very successful. Also in the past, DOD organizations such as DARPA, the Office of Naval Research or the Air Force Research Laboratory have all played critical roles in national-scale innovations. On the government side, there probably must be a formal office somewhere—just where and how remains an open question. Ultimately, the individuals involved (and the charter of they receive) are more important that the details of the organization, or where it resides.

However, it probably should not be entirely a government responsibility. In the nearer term, companies should play key roles in innovation R&D—that’s what they’re best at doing. Then, when the time comes for larger scale technology demonstration on the ground or in space, it probably makes sense for these demos to be implemented through government, industry—and probably international—partnerships.

Evolutionshift.com: Sounds like what is needed is a massive effort similar to the Apollo Space project. Should this be a multi-national effort? Should the U.S. take the lead?

Mankins: I think that a better analogy for space solar power might be with a different example from the 1950s-1960s: the development of communications satellites. Success in this arena required both high levels of technological innovation, driven by economics, as well as organizational innovation (inside government, in industry and in partnerships of the two). Apollo was a tremendous success, but it was very single-minded—and gave no real attention to economics-driven innovation. Space solar power R&D MUST have these elements, or there’s no hope for the vision.

Concerning international efforts: the answer is a strong “YES”! The development of space solar power must be an international undertaking—and the U.S. should definitely play the leadership role in pulling together that effort.

Evolutionshift.com: Is all of the technology and science needed to make SSP a reality now available? If not, what remains to be developed?

Mankins: All of the basic science seems to be in hand. Unlike fusion energy R&D, not fundamental problems of science remain to be solved for space solar power to become feasible. However, there are definitely significant technical challenges remaining before economic feasibility can be established. Solving these challenges is more than just engineering—it requires real invention—but not basic research. A number of areas remain to be developed, including wireless power transmission, robotics, materials and structures, thermal management—and, of course, very low cost Earth to orbit transportation is critical.

Evolutionshift.com: How does the solar energy get sent down to earth? Can the existing power grid disseminate the energy or does a new storage and distribution infrastructure need to be built?

Mankins: Energy from a solar power satellite would be transmitted in a coherent beam of low-intensity radio or light energy. An individual receiver on the ground might receive anywhere from 200-400 megawatts of power, up to 2,000-4,000 megawatts of power. At the lower levels, this power could readily be absorbed into a local power grid with only modest changes. At the higher power levels, significant changes in the local power distribution system would be needed, of course.

Evolutionshift.com: It sounds like the burgeoning private, entrepreneurial space efforts springing up around the world might be a good partner for this effort. Do you agree? If so, would they act as private contractors to the governmental initiative?

Mankins: The players in the so-called “NewSpace” community might very well be excellent partners in the early R&D to enable space solar power. Rather than conceptualization of these firms as “contractors”, however, I think that the term “partners” makes a better model for how these relationships would work best.

Evolutionshift.com: If a well thought out, well funded program were to be launched in 2009, when could the first SSP satellite be in orbit and operational?

Mankins: If a thoughtful, adequately funding space solar power program were started in 2009, then it’s possible that a 100 megawatt pilot plant “demonstrator” could be operational in geostationary Earth orbit as early as 2017. (Of course, if that program got started in 2008, then the demonstrator could fly a year earlier!) Once a large-scale demonstrator has flown, then the pacing development for deploying commercial solar power satellites will be the highly affordable Earth-to-orbit transportation system, and whatever unique in-space infrastructures may be needed. Let’s say, perhaps another 5-8 years, depending on the technologies involved. All-told, it should be possible to fly an operational solar power satellite demonstrator by 2016-2017, and begin deploying commercial satellites by as early as 2020, or as late as 2025—depending on how various specific technology choices work out.

Evolutionshift.com: What percent of the global energy needs could that first satellite meet?

Mankins: By its’ nature, the first space solar power satellite demonstrator, even though large scale, would provide only a trivial fraction of the Earth’s energy. However, once commercial/operational satellites begin to be deployed, each of these might provide in total anywhere from 1,000 megawatts to 4,000 megawatts. That’s a lot of power. Unfortunately, the energy needs of the growing world population and economies are truly staggering in scope during the coming century. For example, by itself the country of India needs something like 500,000 megawatts of new electrical power generating capacity over the next 50 years.

Evolutionshift.com: How big do these satellites need to be? How many of them need to be in orbit to satisfy what percentage of global energy needs, projected out to 2100.

Mankins: Solar power satellites will be very, very large. Of course, all solar power systems are enormous. On the ground, it’s hard to see because the solar arrays are spread across thousands of rooftops. However, the overall systems is still of tremendous size. In the case of solar power satellites, if each satellite were to provide about 4,000 megawatts of power, then five of them would be needed to provide about 20 GW — which is approximately 2 percent of the U.S. demand for electricity. World demand for energy is currently about 4-times U.S. demand, but is growing fast! By 2100, huge new sources of renewable energy will be critical to our civilization, including hydroelectric (already in place), wind, ground solar, appropriate nuclear power—and space solar power.

Evolutionshift.com: It sounds to me as though SSP is the one form of alternative energy that can supply a significant percentage of the energy needs of the planet. So it sounds like the vision needs to be forged into a multi-national will and then receive the necessary funding. Is that correct? If so, care to comment on the probability of this starting up in the next 2-3 years?

Mankins: Actually, even if space solar power were fully developed, the global economy should have more than just one option: a prudent scenario would also involve a portfolio of current energy options—and a “quiver” full of new energy technologies ready to be deployed if, or when they are needed. Certainly, however, space solar is one of very few options to provide a substantial fraction of the truly vast amount of renewable energy that is needed to support human civilization.

Yes, the vision will require an international effort, with needed funding to be realized. Will that effort get started in the next 2 or 3 years? It certainly could: there is nothing technical or financial that prevents such a commitment.

Evolutionshift.com: Any final thoughts for my readers?

Mankin: The space solar power concept has been around for some 40 years at this point. The need for new, far-reaching energy options has never been more critical—and the economic feasibility of space solar power has never been closer to hand. A focused effort over a decade or so might very well bring this exciting renewable energy option into reality, just when we need it most.

Evolutionshift.com: Thank you so much.

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