03 August 2015 News

From SpaceX to SolarCity: how space sector innovation affects sustainability on Earth

Creativity and technological advancement doesn’t just represent a vertical. It can also work sideways.

In our latest print edition, ROOM’s Mary Lynne Dittmar looked at how space exploration has both driven and been driven by innovation.

We also recently had Cecilia Hertz discuss the ways in which sustainability efforts in space have affected sustainability on Earth.

A kind of “sideways” innovation across different sectors, meanwhile, can be affected by a single driving force – and a single big name.

Elon Musk, perhaps, is a good example to invoke here. As Daniel Gross recently wrote in Slate, the man behind SpaceX and Tesla is also the man behind SolarCity, a fascinating and highly ambitious effort to get the United States to use solar panels.

As Gross rightly points out, SolarCity has been written about much less than SpaceX and Tesla. Solar panel technology isn’t seen as nearly as “sexy” as cars and rockets are – especially not in the United States. This is besides the fact that the cost of solar panels used to be incredibly prohibitive.

But as Gross also points out, smart business practices, including efficient assembly and progressive financing techniques, have made SolarCity a potential trigger for mass adoption of the solar panel in the United States.

Considering the scientific community’s growing concerns about climate change and the need for clean energy, SolarCity may have come about at just the right time.

And it can very well be argued that none of this could have been possible without the so-called Musk “personal brand” – as well the way in which Musk’s business efforts have shown the way in which industries thought of as stable, even staid, can be disrupted.

Space sector innovation doesn’t just affect Earth in terms of new inventions that can find a variety of useful applications on the ground. There is also the issue of boldness and lateral thinking.

After all, if Earth can handle the introduction of a concept such as space tourism – something that seemed completely radical not very long ago – then why should its richest nation continue to wholly depend on outdated and, in many ways, environmentally harmful energy sources?

Finally, on a very basic, human, one may even say emotional level – being able to view Earth from space has alerted humanity to how fragile and precious our planet is. There’s hardly another one like it nearby. That’s why the discovery of a possibly Earth-like planet an entire 1,400 light years away prompted such excitement recently.

Sustainability is that area where the same kind of spirit that has been cultivated by space exploration efforts can help. For the United States in particular, SolarCity could be just the beginning.

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