Last Saturday, all eyes were on Florida’s Cape Canaveral base, looking at the launching pad of the SpaceX spacecraft. Two US astronauts sat in the spacecraft, counting the seconds to start their journey. Along the way, they faced several historic landmarks: the first astronauts to launch from U.S. soil since 2011, and the first launch by a private company.
After a thrilling launch, excited applause came from the control room. The spacecraft exited the atmosphere safely and entered orbit. Immediately afterward, the “Dragon 9”, the rocket that propelled the spacecraft to the atmosphere boundary, landed back on a special surface in the Atlantic. 19 hours later, the spacecraft was safely docked at the International Space Station. Eighteen years after founding SpaceX, entrepreneur and billionaire Eilon Musk has reached a significant milestone and a huge achievement live, in front of millions of viewers.
But not everybody could watch the intriguing broadcast. As Falcon 9 carried the spacecraft out of the atmosphere, demonstrating amazing technology and innovation, hundreds of millions were in their homes, without electricity. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s report released this month, 789 million people worldwide still lack electricity in their homes.
Unfortunately, this huge gap is unlikely to disappear in the near future. But with scalable and affordable solutions like renewable energy, we can reduce these numbers and provide millions of people with clean, safe and sustainable electricity. Going all the way from the launch to remote communities in emerging countries, here are some lessons that the energy sector can, and should, learn from the inspiring success of SpaceX.
No goal is too extreme. When Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of “reducing space transportation costs to enable the colonization of Mars”, many thought of him as being a bit “spacy”. His goal sounded way too far-fetched. Today, after the successful launch, the company’s biggest critics are no longer underestimating its next target: sending people to Mars.
Connecting hundreds of millions of people to electricity for the first time may also sound like an unreachable goal. Just like Musk and the SpaceX team, we must adhere to our goal and belief, and work continuously to succeed. For both solar and space, the sky should not be the limit – but a phase on the path for greatness.
The most efficient, affordable, and breakthrough solutions will always come from the private sector. For many years, the mission of launching astronauts was the exclusive property of the US National Space Agency (NASA). Despite huge budgets and the most advanced human capital, “crazy” projects, such as the re-use of the launching missile, did not come to fruition. SpaceX’s tremendous success stems from its immense engineering capabilities, but also from the company’s impressive ability to encourage breakthrough ideas and disruptive technologies, and embark on a decades-long journey to develop them. The ability to take such risks is reserved almost exclusively to private companies led by visionary founders.
This is especially true for the energy sector. With hundreds of millions living without electricity, we must demonstrate groundbreaking, efficient, and affordable innovation. To do so, there is a substantial need for breakthrough ideas, risk-taking, and belief in innovative models and technologies, that only private companies can demonstrate.
Nevertheless, private-government cooperation is essential to scale. Despite all the advantages of private companies, the importance of governments must not be forgotten. It will take some time before we see commercial flights to outer space. Until then, space missions are an important national interest for different countries, allowing for scientific and technological advancement, as well as prestige. To achieve such extraordinary achievements, there must be a collaboration between the innovation and creativity of a private company and the spirit and budgets of a government. Cross-sector collaborations (such as NASA-Space x, or PPP’s) take advantage of each side, maximizing the chances of a project’s success.
Even for space travel, affordability is THE gamechanger. Musk and SpaceX realized that the biggest obstacle to providing NASA with a commercial solution was the huge cost of each launch, due to the method used so far, with the launching rocket carrying the spacecraft to the boundary of the atmosphere dropping to the sea, with no reusability. For many years, the engineering team worked to do the impossible, and land the missile safely, so it can be reused. Only by drastically cutting costs, could the company provide NASA with an efficient service.
In the energy field in Africa, although being very affordable, the principle is similar. Affordability makes the solution accessible and sustainable, and the sector would not be operating without it. Only by delivering exceptionally cheap energy solutions can we provide value to a wide-scale of customers, and take one more step toward meeting our goal.
Never stop innovating. The road to commercial flights to space is still a long way off. So is the way to connect all people on earth to electricity. In both cases, we are at a much better point today than we were 10 years ago, but the ultimate goal is still far away. Every achievement and success are another milestone. To achieve such ambitious goals, one solution is not enough, but a continuous sequence of inventions and innovations is needed. SpaceX has reached an important milestone this week, and is working on the next ideas and breakthrough technologies that will make the next step possible. Energy companies have so far introduced an impressive level of innovation that has already enabled millions to connect to electricity for the first time in their lives. Now, we must continue to innovate and invent more products, technologies and strategies to achieve what might seem impossible, and connect everyone, everywhere to reliable and sustainable electricity.
Yariv Cohen is an impact investor and executive, building value-added businesses and technologies targeted at the developing world.
First published: The New Times