Solar power from space? Irvine Co.’s Bren gives Caltech $100M for research

  • Irvine Co. chairman Donald Bren has donated over $100 million to Caltech to study space-paced solar power. From left, Sergio Pellegrino, the Joyce and Kent Kresa Professor of Aeronautics and Professor of Civil Engineering, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Senior Research Scientist and co-director of the Space-Based Solar Power Project; Brigitte Bren; Donald Bren; Ali Hajimiri, the Bren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering and co-director of the Space-Based Solar Power Project; and Richard Madonna, project manager of the Space-Based Solar Power Project. (Courtesy: Caltech)

  • A solar panel in a lab of the Space Solar Power Project at Caltech. Donald Bren donated $100 million to this project. (Courtesy: Caltech)

  • Sketch of solar array from the Space Solar Power Project at Caltech. Donald Bren donated $100 million to this project. (Courtesy: Caltech)

  • A look at how thin the solar panels are for Caltech’s Solar Space Power Project. Donald Bren has given $100 million-plus to fund Caltech’s research. (Courtesy: Caltech)

  • Microscopic closeup of technology used in Caltech’s Solar Space Power Project. Donald Bren has given $100 million-plus to fund the research. (Courtesy: Caltech)

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Orange County’s billionaire real estate developer Donald Bren has donated at least $100 million to a Caltech project that aims to generate solar power in space and beam it back to earth.

The Southern California News Group has learned that in 2013, Bren agreed to a 10-year commitment to Space Solar Power Project at the Pasadena institute. The years-long effort will reach a milestone in the coming months when it launches the first space test of technology that could change how the world creates and distributes electricity.

“I have been a student researching the possible applications of space-based solar energy for many years,” said Bren, chairman and owner of Irvine Co. and a lifetime trustee at Caltech. “My interest in supporting the world-class scientists at Caltech is driven by my belief in harnessing the natural power of the sun for the benefit of everyone.”

Bren, perhaps best known for using pioneering planning skills to help create the city of Irvine 50 years ago, is not just writing checks from his philanthropic foundation. His real estate experiences also taught him that power distribution is often a major cost and headache.

He brought to Caltech an idea that was sparked by a Popular Science magazine piece on power transmission ideas. At the time, Caltech scientists had been working on slices of the technology required for such an endeavor.

A partnership eventually evolved that is unique in several ways. It’s one of the largest donations Caltech has received. But even rarer: Bren has taken no ownership stake in what the project produces — potentially high-value patents on breakthrough science.

“It shows the magnitude of the generosity,” one of the Caltech professors on the project, Ali Hajimiri, said in an interview Friday.

“They really want to change the world and they don’t want anything in return,” Hajimiri said of Bren and his wife, Brigitte, a Caltech board member. “They truly see this as an opportunity to make a difference.”

Power everywhere

If this sounds like science fiction, in some ways, it once was.

Legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story “Reason” describes a space station distributing solar energy to various planets. And various government agencies and private investors have toyed with similar concepts on and off since the 1970s.

Today’s experimentation at Caltech involves complex, game-changing thinking.

For example, it requires accuracy in picoseconds, one trillionth of a second. The novel solar panels being tested are nearly as thin as a sheet of paper. The system must be smart enough to detect any physical intrusion into the earth-bound transmission beam, for safety’s sake. It also must be lightweight and flexible to lower the launch costs. And this won’t be a spaceship, rather imagine a large carpet of solar panels.

You don’t need a physics Ph.D. to see the giant potential of turning electricity into something similar to cell service. Science has brought wireless telephone and data service to much of the globe with ever-increasing speed and clarity. And in space, the sun is available to create power all day, every day, free from weather constraints.

The project’s first test will launch a combination power generator and transmitter measuring roughly 6 feet by 6 feet. Taking the concept into space will be by Silicon Valley start-up Momentus.

Hajimiri says there are three goals: deploy the tech in space; gather energy using the panels; transmit that electricity through space.

That’s only a first step. The next one involves the prospect of taking the concept into real-world use, something that could be long as six years away, he says.

Yes, it’s another billionaire tied to space technology. But this isn’t anything like the hyped battle among three others billionaires — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Virgin’s Richard Branson and Tesla/Space X’s Elon Musk — to create vehicles that will enable a space tourism industry.

For now, those are largely products for the rich. Bren’s solar project seeks to create a global supply of affordable and clean power.

“Donald Bren has brought the same drive and discipline that he has demonstrated with master planning communities to the Space Solar Program,” Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum said in a statement. “He has presented a remarkable technical challenge that promises a remarkable payoff for humanity: a world powered by uninterruptible renewable energy.”

Long-term deal

The project’s genesis came a decade ago when Bren had a conversation about space power with Caltech’s then-president Jean-Lou Chameau.

Soon a faculty group started discussing the possibilities of what seemed far-fetched at the time. Eventually, Caltech presented Bren with a proposal. In 2013, the school started the work, and Bren began his donations, which Caltech says now exceed $100 million.

“We came up with a dream,” says Sergio Pellegrino, another Caltech professor on the project. “We needed to rethink everything.”

The once-secret, 10-year commitment has helped the project over many hurdles. Pellegrino compares it to shorter-term thinking involved in a $17.5 million, three-year grant Caltech got from defense contractor Northrop Grumman in 2015 to work on space power technologies.

“It allows us to think ahead,” Pellegrino says. “Without that, it couldn’t get done.”

For starters, Bren’s contributions allow professors to hire students to work on the plan with a five-year commitment, ideal for doctoral candidates.

Also, when a necessary part can’t be found, Caltech can make it themselves. That often takes time when they’re creating never-been-tried-before gadgets.

Bren and his wife meet with Caltech researchers at least once a year. Pellegrino says the 89-year-old businessman brings a far different perspective to the project than what typically exists within the Caltech campus.

For example, Bren suggested the project use Southern California suppliers as much as possible in order to make a regional hub for space-centric power. That was a shift from the typical global sourcing approach.

“He had a regional dimension to his thinking I was not thinking about,” Pellegrino says.

Thinking green

Bren is no stranger to environmentally-friendly efforts.

His team often notes how green the city of Irvine is — literally and figuratively. Bren owns more environmentally friendly “LEED-certified” office buildings — 70 — than anyone else in California.

But it’s also about what Bren hasn’t built. In Orange County, Bren has given away 57,500 acres of the Irvine Ranch land for parks and preserves and has funded endowments to maintain those lands.

Yes, some of those land deals were part of trades for construction approvals. But at today’s land prices of roughly $7 million an acre for ready-to-build lots, his contribution adds up to $35 billion.

His other educational donations include giving UC Santa Barbara $20 million to fund the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. The program that started in 1997 was the first U.S. university to focus graduate studies on issues such as sustainability and conservation.

This Caltech gift is a tad grander and potentially far more global. And the gee-whiz thought of power coming from space isn’t the only possible breakthrough application.

Wireless power transmission on Earth could revolutionize everything from the safety and aesthetics of overhead power lines to how power is supplied in emergency situations to the creation of more environmentally friendly solar panels and even how we refuel an electric car.

Professor Hajimiri notes that “technology finds its own path” through the commercialization of its potential to the ultimate consumer.

Consider looking at how wireless information technology moved computing and storage from your device to the Internet’s vast cloud.

“Just imagine if power was as ubiquitous as WiFi or cellular.”

Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at jlansner@scng.com

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