What do you get when you combine California’s high-tech expertise with Orange County’s exceptional green spirit – and add a shot of trademark west coast generosity?
You might just get something like Irvine Company Chairman Donald Bren’s donation of more than $100 million in support for the Space-based Solar Power Project at the California Institute of Technology. On Friday, the Irvine Company confirmed reports of the previously secret gift, promised in 2013 to be distributed over ten years.
Solar panels in space could be a game-changer for global efforts to minimize climate change while providing clean, renewable, affordable and dependable gigawatts. The scientists and engineers in Caltech’s program envision a space station the size of a city park, with nano-engineered, paper-thin modules made of billions of greeting-card-sized tiles that will unfold in space to collect solar energy, convert it into radio-frequency power, and beam it to receiver stations on earth.
Space-based solar energy moves the needle way ahead of even the mammoth solar arrays that have been built in countries like Chile and Israel. Once the system is up and running, we won’t have to worry about storing excess power or interruptions from bad weather or even the dark of night: the sun will provide a constant, endless source of energy: delivering more power in an hour than humanity could use in a year.
Bren, a lifetime trustee at Caltech, says he’s been following the progress of space-based solar power for years, and believes in the promise of harnessing the power of the sun “for the benefit of everyone.” It’s worth noting that at the going rates, he just as easily could have spent $100 million to buy tickets for himself and a friend to fly on a private rocket to the International Space Station next year.
But that’s not who he is. Bren, after all, is the reason that Orange County hosts close to 60,000 acres of permanently preserved open space. He has also given $50 million to the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, which helps maintain the land, and $20 million to the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California at Santa Barbara, to train researchers working on conservation breakthroughs. In a rare commitment for philanthropists, Mr. Bren has not asked for anything in return for his gift to the Pasadena institution, despite the potential for lucrative patents on pioneering new technologies.
This week’s gift is not only one of Bren’s biggest but surely the most urgently needed, as Californians who have come to dread our worsening wildfire season and threatened electricity blackouts understand. It’s also economically urgent for the U.S. economy, given that other nations – including Japan and China – are now racing to be first to reap solar energy from space. Caltech’s crew plans to launch its first test of the technology in coming months, launching a six-foot by six-foot generator and transmitter into space.
There’s no doubt that Caltech has the chops to win this race. Its scientists operate NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which built and managed the Mars Perseverance Rover. Orange County’s support also makes sense.
We’re the heart of a major US hub for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates, in a region that’s first in the nation with 528,000 professional and technical jobs – more than 100,000 more than Silicon Valley. Thanks to Bren, we may also become a national nexus for reaping energy from space — potentially making power as ubiquitous as cell-phone service.
Orange County’s new link to the space-based solar project is a perfect example of our leaders from this great metropolitan community using extraordinary talents and resources to make a planet-sized difference. Bren has now offered the propulsion that promises a remarkable payoff, according to Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum – namely “a world powered by uninterruptible renewable energy.”
Lucy Dunn is president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council.