Space-Based Solar Power

a public discussion sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation

Space Policy? Energy Policy? Security Policy?

Posted by Coyote on June 19, 2007

An apparent stumbling block for space-based solar power inside Washington (and probably elsewhere) is that it is always someone else’s job. It spans far beyond any single organization’s charter, so it becomes the dropped ball, getting only an occasional glance from the players:

  • Energy is the Department of Energy’s job (hence the name), but they don’t do space
  • NASA does space, but they’re doing Moon, Mars, and beyond, not energy
  • The Department of Defense also does space, but it is not in the energy business

As the political parties hammer out their platforms for the 2008 presidential election, where should they address the development of space-based solar power? How should the new administration proceed? Who should be the lead department or agency?

Coyote

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39 Responses to “Space Policy? Energy Policy? Security Policy?”

  1. Phil Mills said

    Coyote,
    The apparent stumbling block for Space Solar Power and that it is always someone else’s job. Well SSP is an important enough issue and therefore this demands that it has it’s own agency!
    Examples are the International Atomic Energy Agency, and NASA formed in 1959 after Vice President Nixon suggested it. In our case though this would not be an International Agency.

    If SSP had its own agency it could control its own legal issues having its own lawyers as well as issue contracts and such forth. It would also have its own Astronaut corps separate from NASA. Running SSP as a separate agency would also signify that the US Government is serious in the development of Space Based Energy as an alternative to traditional energy supplies.
    The new administration should form the new Agency and give it a mandate to proceed. It would obviously have to compete for Tax Dollars with all other agencies but at least it would be able to stand on its own two feet with a clear goal.
    As for a name : Space Solar Power Administration, SSPA.

    Phil

  2. Coyote said

    Phil,

    A couple of questions:
    First, what do you think it would it take to make the creation of SSPA politically viable?
    Second, would it be a self-contained organization, or would it be expected to leverage off of other agencies’ work?
    Third, What changes would need to be made to make NASA able to carry this off?

    Coyote

  3. Edawg said

    space czar anyone..?

  4. Des Emery said

    First — politics makes strange bedfellows. SSPA should aim to be as non-political as possible, but the administration should make it its prime business to become a ‘normal’ non-governmental agency friendly to all politicians generally, at home and abroad. It can be started from any foundation within government, then quickly dis-associate itself from any perception of polotical bias.

    Second — Get whatever leverage is possible from whatever agency could be involved in any way. Let the other agency make up its own mind about the application of whatever contribution it might make, and don’t close any doors. Establish an identity and maintain that integrity.

    Third — NASA has a certain reputation and could easily act as ‘father’ to the developing ‘child.’ Association with established agencies will not hurt.

  5. shubber said

    Coyote –

    one suggestion: the TVA. Take a look at the development of the Tennessee Valley Authority (and other such power infrastructure projects from yesteryear) to see models that may provide some clues. Another suggestion: a few years back we did a study which brought DoD, NASA, and Industry to the table – in this case, for the construction of a pair of transonic windtunnels (obvious benefits to all three stakeholders). We looked at a range of public/private ownership models, both domestic and international, when examining ways to structure, and thus finance, the deal…

  6. Coyote said

    Des,

    My sense is that you are correct; “SSPA should aim to be as non-political as possible.” Perhaps the worst thing that could happen is that it becomes too affiliated with any one party or particular champion. This would make it a target by the opposing party for purely political reasons.

    Coyote

  7. Coyote said

    Shubber,

    I’ve taken a cursory look at three historic examples of infrastructure development to solve big problems; 1) Erie Canal, 2) Transcontinental Railroad, and 3) TVA.

    Among the ways government raised capital and stimulated interest among developers to start and complete these projects included: Political support from the president, the sale of government backed bonds, loosening restrictions and oversight on the developers, giving huge swaths of land and mineral rights to the developers, minimizing liabilities, providing the army to defend the development, accepting legal kick-backs from the developers in the form of large campaign contributions, etc, etc, etc.

    I suspect the pyramids, aqueducts, and great walls of antiquity were produced along similar lines.

    Are you familiar with the work of Mike Snead? He is the leading advocate for a space logistics infrastructure approach to enabling more to be done in space. His ideas are considered controversial among members of the traditional aerospace community, but only because he suggests an indirect method of advancing the art of spacefaring. By the way, his proposals are far more egalitarian and far less mechantilist than my characterization of the examples cited.

    Coyote

  8. Here’s a headline from today’s CNET news:

    Wind blows away competition among renewable energy investors

    Money is pouring into renewable energy. And it’s a global trend. The United Nations on Wednesday reported that $100 billion went into renewable energy and efficiency technologies last year. That’s a record–up $20 billion from 2005. Indications are 2007 will set another record. You can read a summary of the United Nations report here.

    Once dominated by North America and Europe, renewable energy investments are spreading out. Last year, 9 percent went into China. Investors from India were active in acquisitions.

    Money’s coming from stock markets, venture capital investments and private individuals. Publicly traded renewable energy stocks rose more than 60 percent during the recent 15 months including the first quarter of 2007. That fuels even more investor interest.

    Among the types of renewable energy, wind is most popular with investors. It’s followed by solar and biofuels. High petroleum prices are given some of the credit for the strength of renewable energy investment, along with concern over climate change.

    Now that should put a little perspective* on the investment market, what they have been focusing on, and the size of investments….

    Regards,
    Shubber

    p.s. – and yes, aren’t you glad I didn’t say “shed a little light”? :-)

  9. Des Emery said

    Hey, Coyote — I previously mentioned MSNBC’s Alan Doyle referring to your project and now he’s over in Europe reporting on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider project and the ITER job, also based in Europe. And I just read that a Canadian university team has developed a new type of mirror for a telescope to be installed on the moon. It’s liquid that can be carried in a flask and then deployed on rotating disk which turns it into a 90 to 95% effective parabolic mirror. These are the kind of projects to approach in international co-operation; some 50 or more nations have people working on the LHC. The kind of Canadian invention could be the type of solar collector your group is interested in using, a cheap, easily installed, efficient method of turning Sol’s output into power; perhaps not just ‘light’ but also infrared or ultraviolet or other radiation can be captured with that kind of mirror. Let Shubber’s competition vie for producing the separate parts, not for the project itself.

  10. Phil Mills said

    Coyote,
    I agree with Des Emery ref your questions on the SSPA.
    The TVA is also a good example of the sort of model that the SSPA needs to be .

    I’ve been researching into the work of Mike Snead and would like to add that I agree with his ideas for Space Logistics. These reminded me of a paper I started on a Space Transporter and Orbital Construction Base after the Columbia Disaster and before the VSE was published and well before the plans of Bigelow were widely known. I never completed the paper as the VSE came along and with the Bigelow modules a lot of what I wrote become irrelevant. However my original concept was for logistics to meet high capacity payloads to LEO with the view to support orbital construction for SSP and so forth. I also had the idea of combining launch vehicle upper stages with the cargo containers and they both would be continually used using “wet“ assembly techniques to convert the empty fuel tanks into accommodation for assembly crews. No returning to Earth for reuse therefore no need to provide for re-entry heat shield protection and wings either, giving a saving in weight. They would be transformed into living accommodation at initial orbital construction sites. I termed this idea “Constantly usable“ to be different from expendable and reusable. When this public discussion came along last week it reminded me of my half completed paper and I wondered if it could be relevant again. Reading Mike Snead’s article although I have not seen the illustrations would hint that it is.

    Phil

  11. Wegeng said

    A related question is: Do we want the Federal government to be the operator of the SSP system? I like the models of the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad and the TVA for what they teach us; am not sure that we would want many of the attributes of each. Other interesting models include the development of the electric power grid (which includes privately-owned, regulated-monopoly corporations), the private financing of the “Chunnel” between England and France, and the early attempts at nuclear power (which included government-sponsored demonstration projects at private utility sites). The worldwide capital finance market for large infrastructure projects is about $200B per year, a portion of which might be available to private companies building SSP systems IF government (or other) investments can show that the risks and potential returns are well balanced.

  12. Coyote said

    Wegeng,

    We obviously want to transfer SBSP to a commerical company at the earilest possibile time. But we need to make sure that SBSP actually happens instead of being shelved and forgotten.

    Coyote

  13. Phil Mills said

    We obviously want to transfer SBSP to a commercial company at the earliest possible time. But we need to make sure that SBSP actually happens instead of being shelved and forgotten.

    Coyote
    Question: Has there been any consideration on the setting up of a SSP company (legislation and so forth) or will this be simply the privatisation of a Government run operation that is begun with the setting up of a SSPA to regulate the systems construction?
    Also making sure that SSP actually happens, Has there been any direct approach to any political parties in the US or elsewhere for that matter with a view to putting this on their political agenda? I would consider this to be one of the first things to do to prevent SSP been shelved and forgotten. I know this will run the risk of politicising SSP especially if only one party supports it while one may not but there is always cross party support or opposition in most issues. Political parties are so close these days politicians can change sides side’ like the drop of a hat! Is it worth the risk of politicising SSP just to get it started?
    Also have you considered the international aspects of SSP. If the US started SSP would not other nations not want to get left behind, Russia, China, India, and the UE for example?
    This could be the catalyst for what we are waiting for!

    Phil.

  14. Coyote said

    Phil,

    We have talked about a legislated SSP company, but done nothing at this point. I think we need to render the findings of this study before we move aggressively in that direction…although that might be a recommendation.

    I actually do not know much about government-established corporations, or how government goes about establishing them–I’m just a simple caveman space professional…loud noises frighten me, and I can’t understand why thunder storms and lightening storms always seem to happen at the same time.

    We have worked with a couple of think tanks inside the beltway who deal with energy issues. They are putting SSP on their materials–with the prudent caveats that we are in the pre-R&D phase, but that it offers much promise and requires consideration in policies regarding energy, space, security, commerce, and international partnerships. I would like both political parties to consider SBSP (or call it SSP) in their agendas as they build towards the 2008 election. But as you mention, we need bi-partisan support because if one party picks it up the other party will automatically become its enemy.

    Personally, I think internationalizing the SSP effort is a great way to go–particularly among the ISS partners–but this is a matter of policy. We will probably want the American space industry to have first crack at it, but given the scopes and scales of the proposals I’ve seen to date, I’m thinking we will be driven to internationalize sooner rather than later.

    Coyote

  15. Edawg said

    the question then becomes do we America try and have a monopoly on the foundation of a commercial international approach to utilize space?Because the last time I checked we are in an unofficial space race, with France recently doubling their military spending budget on space.Btw France is now looking to nuclear propulsion so.. take that hippies.

    With this massive build up of space based infrastructure we will begin to become a type 2 civilization.The next 500 years of America and the rest of the world will be decided out there in the depths of our solar system.So any organization that governs the SSPA will eventually be forced to become political due to the pressures of international expansion.The way I see it America can either take the lead in space or go the way of the Roman empire.

    The rantings of mad college student

  16. Mike Snead said

    1. I see at least three Federal Government Corporations being established. One would be for space transportation and logistics, one for space resource recovery, and one for space-based energy production. Why three – because of span of control and timing.

    2. Why FGC’s and not existing federal agencies? Because this establishes a clear purpose and success criteria. These are new activities. It is not best to mix them with existing organizations/priorities/careers as this will only lead to conflict. Further, each of the FGC’s will have the ability to issue bonds and assume debt in the name of the U.S. government. Agencies, e.g., NASA, DOD, can’t do this.

    3. The difference between these new FGC’s and the TVA is that the TVA (as I understand) operates essentially organically. It directly manages and operates their facilities. This was good in the 1930s when such capabilities did not widely exist in private industry. It is not the case today. I have come to the conclusion that each of these three FGC’s should be public-private partnerships in the sense that competing commercial service providers, system developers, etc., are engaged to execute. The FGC’s are run as a series of progam offices that manage the specific contracts. This keeps the FGC’s executive in nature with each program office employing 100-300 people while a core group “home office” expertise is maintained either organically or through cooperative agreements with other federal agencies and/or universities. It is very important though that each FGC has a very public face and not be buried inside an existing larger bureaucracy that has constantly shifting priorities and policies.

    4. The U.S. Space Logistics Infrastructure Authority will address transportation, in-space logistics facilities, in-space logistics services, and in-space logistics transportation throughout the Earth-Moon system. It will contract with commercial companies to develop, produce, construct, and generally operate these new capabilities using competitive commercial contracts. The bulk of this new capability can be established using current technologies. This is the starting point and will provide the bulk of actual work efforts during the next presidential administration. Undertaking the building of an integrated space logistics infrastructure will establish a new national mastery of space operations (discussed by the Space Commission) that is essential to the other two sister activities. Essentially, much as the military’s building of jet aircraft in the 1950s established the commercial jet aviation industry in America, building the space logistics infrastructure will create a new commercial mastery of space technology/operations that will lead the way for the U.S. to become a true spacefaring nation and a clear world leader in space. This is why this is important to be a minimal government/maximum commercial effort.

    5. The U.S. Extra-terrestrial Resources Extraction Agency will address locating, identifying, and extracting resources needed for in-space logistics operations and space-based energy production. This will involve lunar, asteroid, and comet resources. This effort will build on the space logistics infrastructure to locate, identify, and extract the resources. During the next presidential administration most of the efforts will involve S&T for resource extraction and delivery and space prospecting to identify and quantify resource locations.

    6. The U.S. Space Energy Commission will address developing and delivering space-based energy to in-space logistics operations, in-space government and commercial operators, extra-terrestrial resources extraction, and terrestrial users. This could be GEO-based solar-electric/thermal, lunar solar, space nuclear, etc. It is too early to lock in a specific energy source. (This is why I did not call this the SunSat Corp. The future SunSat Corp may be a commercial provider to the Space Energy Commission should solar power satellites prove to be a good energy source.) During the next presidential administration most of the efforts will involve S&T for space-based energy production, space prospecting for space-derived energy sources (i.e., He3), and demonstration programs for space-delivered energy (i.e., space solar power satellites).

    Mike Snead

    http://mikesnead.net

  17. Des Emery said

    Hi, Coyote — Getting back to your original questions, it would probably be best to approach both political parties for their ‘opinions’ on Space Solar Power. Asking direct questions in public debates could guide your proposed route to its ultimate destination.

    You mention Dept. of Energy, Dept. of Defense, and NASA as possible partners, but this project is not about ‘going’ to space, a la NASA, or inventing a ‘death ray,’ a la DoD. Space is involved, of course, but the primary and most obvious purpose of the organisation is to draw sun-power from low earth orbit and to broadcast it to stations on Earth. Department of Energy is the logical pick. A corollary effect naturally is the relief of Global Warming, another concern of that Department.

  18. “Because the last time I checked we are in an unofficial space race, with France recently doubling their military spending budget on space.

    Yes, let’s review those budgets, shall we?

    DOD Military Space Budget:
    – FY 2002 : $15.7 billion
    – FY 2004 : $20.4 billion
    – FY 2008 : $28.6 billion (projected)
    Source: State Department Report (2003)

    French Military Space Budget:
    – “It has a budget of € 250 million per year for military space activities and is developing its own intelligence, space surveillance and early warning systems. ”
    Source: UK Parliament Office of Science and Technology 2006 Report

    “With this massive build up of space based infrastructure we will begin to become a type 2 civilization.”

    I’m not sure that I’d accept either:
    (a) the French are becoming serious rivals when their budget is barely 1.5% that of the US DOD military space budget (or even 3% if they doubled it as you claimed), nor
    (b) that this represents a “massive buildup” in space based infrastructure.
    Plus, I dont even know what a “Type 2″ civilization is. Can you give me a definition?

  19. Des Emery said

    Hi, Coyote — Mike Snead lays out a detailed overview of a particular project and presumably spent a great deal of time and mental effort determining details. One detail bothers me somewhat, and that is his assumption that this will happen during the ‘next presidential administration.’ Isn’t this estimate of time much too soon? The bureaucracy he envisions would be able to achieve nowhere near that in getting itself established, let alone accomplish anything. Bureaucracy should be avoided as much as humanly possible as private bureaucracy is no more efficient than public bureaucracy. Shubber Ali notes that the DoD spends much, much more than the French do on military space, but isn’t that a good argument against bureaucracy in general? Space Solar Power needs to concentrate on development, not in providing employment for several hundred people until it is deemed ‘ready to go.’

  20. Coyote said

    Des Emery,

    I will leave it for Mike to explain his time line.

    Your point is well taken. Bureaucracy is a silent killer. It presents impediments at every step in road, which increases costs. It slows things down over several budget periods, which increases costs. It also gives disproportionate empowerment to the naysayers and the purveyors of the status quo, which increases costs.

    Coyote

  21. Mike Snead said

    I argue that bureaucracy, with all of its faults, builds highways, dams, electrical power distribution networks, ports, medical systems, education systems, and national defense capabilities, to name a few. I cannot think of a good example of free enterprise building something of consequence or permanence that was independent of infrastructure or similar logistics operational capabilities built by bureaucracies.

    It is always easy to be overly pessimistic about implementation timelines. I note that a motivated America went from breaking the sound barrier to landing on the Moon in 22 years. An ineffective bureaucracy can certainly accomplish little and take a long time doing it. An effective bureaucracy – such as the one that built the atom bomb in World War II – can accomplish much in a relatively short period of time. In short, successful bureaucracies are led by those who (1) believe in the importance of the objective and (2) are able to harness the strengths of the people in the bureaucracies while minimizing the weaknesses of the bureaucratic form of organization. If you do not believe in (1), then (2) is hard to achieve or believe to be possible.

    The average development timeline for a leading-edge flight system is about 8 years – about what it took to bring the Space Shuttle into operation. The shortest time that I have found was the Mach 3+ A-11 (I think that is the correct designation for the predecessor to the SR-71.) It took about 3.5 years, as I recall. The DC-X, which relied on demonstrated and available components, took about 18 months from PDR to first flight. Boeing spends about 6-7 years bringing a new airliner to first delivery from the formal launch.

    My argument is that a new Federal Government Corporation that uses funding obtained by government-backed bonds to pay for the development of the new, two-stage, fully-reusable space access systems – the first element of the integrated spacefaring logistics infrastructure that the Corporation would undertake – can avoid the delays of funding using appropriated funding. This means that it can start activity and ramp up fairly quickly. This funding approach combined with the use of TRL 6-9 technologies will enable the reusable space access development program to proceed at a pace comparable to current commercial aircraft development programs. With appropriate legislative priority to establish the new Corporation quickly – as Roosevelt did in 1933, for instance – it should be successful in bringing the new system into operation by the end of the 8 years.

  22. Sam Dinkin said

    NASA is a cost center jobs program. DoD does space but has many competing jobs 97% of which are more crucial than cheap energy. (Is the other 3% the portion of DoD’s budget spent on energy?) DoE or EPA would be a good choice after space transportation is sufficiently developed and commercialized to be cheap and boring. I say EPA because they are probably going to get to regulate carbon emissions and the US heat budget. They will then be a tremendous revenue raiser with carbon taxes and permits.

    If you want it to actually be deployed as opposed to studied, I’d recommend Interior’s BLM.

  23. My only problem with government chartered companies is that they are government chartered companies (rather than private companies chartered by the government). When these organizations get started they inevitably get the “Highlander Syndrome”, that is there is only one way to do x, y, or z. Ed Wright is right about the Comsat corporation. Read about what it took for Panamsat to break the government monopoly. Now the government does have a role in setting the direction and enabling private enterprise to go forward but I cringe at the thought of a statist approach to the economic expansion into the solar system.

    With that in mind, lets change the discussion. What type of enabling legislation that incentivises private enterprise would work? Obviously I start with my favorite Zero G Zero Tax, but it needs steroids applied.

    What kind of steroids? Obviously zero taxes for products made in space. How about double tax credit for the DDT&E that goes into the project. I have found out in my solar work that some institutions have an insatiable appetite for tax credits and these are large institutions like banks and investment houses. You could also, for an SSP system offer double tax credit per watt of power installed on orbit and beamed to the earth. Do it like the state of California does with an additional cents per kilowatt power purchase agreement that is enough above the cost of power today (in california it is as high as 50 cents/kw/hr) that the system cost is amortized within the time period of agreement. Also apply accelerated depreciation to the asset and I can guarantee you that Blackstone and the other private equity groups will go for it.

    To me this is far cheaper for the taxpayer and far more enabling to the economy than a statist enterprise.

  24. Des Emery said

    A couple of general comments, Coyote — Mike Snead’s ‘bureaucracy’ which builds highways, dams, etc., is actually ‘government.’ Government’s initial approach to any project (which it has approved) is to buckle down and get the job done. Bureaucracy then sets in, and the primary purpose becomes ‘get me an assistant or two’ which turns into ‘keep my job, essential now or not.’ Quickly,it turns into Dennis Wingo’s ‘statist enterprise,’ and becomes stratified and rigid. But that is not the fault of government itself, just its tendency to allow human frailty to overwhelm it. Dennis’ tax solution works well for a rich example like California, but would it do the same for Alabama or Mississippi? Another possibility which has worked out well for high-tech projects like SSP could be a partnership with a University or two, letting them provide ideas for both public and private funding, inventive strategies, and a certain legitimacy to impress the public user of your technology, whose acceptance of it is at the core of its success. Brains will make it work, but the public approval or disapproval of solar power resides in the wallets of the ‘people.’

  25. Mike Snead said

    There is substantial flexibility in how a Federal Government Corporation is established and organized. There is not one model. The key is to have the ability to issue government-backed bonds. For Congress to give the corporation this authroity for the sums necessary, some level of direct public oversight will be needed. But, as I said at the beginning based on a modest amount of research, there is substantial flexibility in how the corporation can be organized.

  26. Mike, et al

    The government did just fine issuing bonds based on performance to both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads. The bonds were not usable until certain milestones were reached. You could couple the bonds in a similar manner but I don’t think that the point is getting through that the approach that I laid out works. I am in the middle of a $10M terrestrial solar deal right now based on existing incentives in CA without considering the esoteric things like Renewable Energy Credits or Carbon Credits. The model that I outlined exists now and the banks and investment houses understand it.

    Banks want a guaranteed return over time. It was a banker that told me that “we have an insatiable appetite for tax credits”. Couple a Power Purchase Agreement with tax credits and accelerated depreciation will get the banks involved. Add a double R&D credit and no capital gains on stock transactions and you get the VC money in.

    We don’t need or want another TVA. I live in TVA land and while we have the lowest electricity rates in the nation, TVA itself is a problem child, partly because of the government. Did you guys know that TVA is not allowed to reduce its debt? This is federal debt and TVA has to pay interest into the federal treasury every year while borrowing money today on the market for capital expenditures. This is efficient?

    The above model has problems as there will be fraud and hucksters but that is what prisons were made for.

  27. spacepolicy said

    There are two competing approaches here. The philosophies are quite different.

    I too am concerned about a “statist” approach to private economic development of space via government-created monopolies. We do need to be careful. Under certain circumstances this might be justified and politically achievable (e.g., if we had a really urgent national security crisis … like we had for Apollo and the Manhattan project). That said I can think of at least one example where I think this approach is a good idea (for lunar development … such an entity would establish lunar property rights, and then become a customer for privately designed, developed, and owned infrastructure.)

    The closer we are to Earth, the more problematic this is.

    No matter how well intentioned, a government corporation (over time) sees new entrants as the “competition” and will attempt (possibly indirectly) to keep the barriers of entry high. Maybe all they do is say to the government “You don’t need to buy from these new entrepreneurial ventures … buy from us as we are low risk. We will do the job.”

    At least one part of what Mike propoposes is DOA … in my opinion.

    The moment somebody proposes a government-charted corporation for space launch, there will be a near-unanimous scream of opposition from every existing space launch company in existence.

    Although it is less obvious — even “in-space” infrastructure has attracted the attention of many private companies. (Bigelow, ManSat, Boeing has a propellant depot concept.) Under the O’Keefe administration, there were many NASA-funded studies of privately owned and operated in-space infrastructure. In most cases, they just want a dependable customer who will sign a commercial-style FFP contract. As far as I know, none of them were asking for a government chartered corporation to be set up. But if this “corporation” had VERY limited “authority”, and was limited to buying “services”, and firm-fixed price contracts, and wax expressly prohibited from designing, owning or operating the infrastructure … maybe there is something there.

    That said, there is a good chance that other federal agencies will consider this to be an intrusion on there territory and then kill it. This is another minefield.

    Since Mike mentions the successful history of aircraft, I think we should look there for effective models on how to encourage this industry. One of those is the early years of the N.A.C.A. Another is the Kelly Air Mail Act model. I also agree with Zero G, Zero Tax.

    We do need a much more intensive subsidy for private investment in space transportation — so I would add an “investment tax credit” for RLVs.

    - Charles

  28. Phil Chapman said

    Competitive technologies.

    Large-scale SSP deployment will not happen unless it provides power more cheaply than the alternatives (taking into account not only direct costs but external societal costs). On the plus side, the SSP has certain societal advantages that need to be included but are not easy to quantify:

    a) The system provides clean electric power, anywhere in the world (up to 65 deg latitude) with little environmental impact.
    b) Commitment to the SSP would provide the impetus needed to extend human civilization out into the solar system, bringing life to barren worlds.
    c) The rectennas can provide the structure for large-scale greenhouse agriculture, allowing food production at high latitudes and in desert areas.
    d) When supplying power to a 3rd World country, the investment in its territory is reduced, compared to other power plants (e.g., hydro or nuclear), because only the rectenna is located there. If the country fails to pay its bills, the power beam can be redirected somewhere else. This should make it easier to finance.

    IMHO, the principal alternatives are:

    1. The Sodium-Cooled Fast Neutron Reactor (FNR). The feasibility of this system was demonstrated by Argonne National Lab and GE in the ‘80s, but the project was canned by the Clinton Administration, apparently due to confusion with the breeder reactor, which has proliferation problems because it is designed to make plutonium. With the FNR, plutonium is recycled and never leaves the plant. This system is the leading contender in the current international studies of Gen IV reactors. It burns fissile fuels (U-238, Pu-238) as well as fissionable ones (U-236, PU-239, Pu-241), so it largely avoids the need to enrich uranium (an enriched fuel is needed only to get it started). This means that it extracts 100 times as much energy as a current light water reactor from a given mass of uranium ore. Known uranium reserves are then sufficient to provide ALL current world energy needs for somewhere between 500 and 2000 years. The mass of waste is also reduced by a factor of 100. If this system were used to supply all current US electric power needs, the waste that must be sequestered would amount to 200 gm for each person during his/her lifetime , or a volume smaller than a golf ball. Moreover, the system burns up the long half-life transuranic reaction products, so this small amount of waste need be sequestered for only 400 years instead of 10,000.

    2) Methane from hydrates. Methane hydrate (the ice that burns) is a clathrate, in which a CH4 molecule is locked in a cage of water ice. There are vast deposits on the continental shelves and under Arctic permafrost. The USGS estimates that there may be enough to meet ALL current world energy needs for 100,000 years!! Japan is vigorously pursuing extraction technologies, because the deposits off their shores could give them energy independence. As supplied to consumers, natural gas is almost pure CH4, so the current distribution system can be used. Burning CH4 produces CO2, although considerably less than burning oil or coal. IMHO, the jury is still out on anthropogenic global warming, but if we needed to sequester CO2 from power plants burning CH4, it would increase the cost of energy generated by about 1 cent/kWh.

    3) Out in left field is work during the last decade by Bob Bussard’s Energy Matter Conversion Corp (EMC2, of course) on Inertial Electrodynamic Containment Fusion. There is a lot of work to be done, but the concept is very intriguing. He has demonstrated a billion D-D fusions/sec in a desktop device (that’s not much more than a milliwatt, and it lasted less than a millisecond – but that’s steady state with the time constants involved, and it’s an important proof of the principle). It may be possible to use fusion of protons and Boron 11, for which the reaction products are just three energetic alpha particles, They can be used to generate electricity directly. No neutrons! No thermal blanket! No radioactivity! No steam turbines! Scaling laws suggest that a powerplant producing 100 MW could fit in your living room. This technology, if it works, could also be used for space propulsion, giving us interplanetary travel times of two or three weeks.

    The conclusion is that there is no energy shortage, only a lack of sufficient effort to develop solutions. The SSP is one of several promising approaches. All of them should be pursued in a competitive environment until we know enough to determine which is best for which application.

  29. Coyote said

    Phil,

    Wow, nicely done! I think we’re ready to bring on some more technical discussions!

    Coyote

  30. Hu said

    Phil brings up an important point: Whatever entity is entrusted with large sums to address the obvious energy crisis better be prepared to distrubute the funds wisely to achieve “energy indpendence” — via whatever combination of generation techniques work best — both to supply electricity and keep our transportation systems supplied with liquid and gaseous fuels.

    Someone mentioned an eight year life… that is about as long as intensive efforts can persist; fits naturally into the Administration life cycle; but we also need major checkpoints at 2,4 and 6 years.

    As to the needs: “(e.g., if we had a really urgent national security crisis … like we had for Apollo and the Manhattan project)” — we are there and have been for some years. We cannot tarry!

  31. Des Emery said

    Well, Coyote, I’m getting beyond my depth, so I’ll just be reading blogs here for a while. A couple of comments, though — Dennis Wingo says he doesn’t want another TVA, even though he knows it provides the lowest electricity rates in the USA. If that model is used, could not the contract allow for interest pre-payment, apparently his bugaboo? Learning from mistakes already made allows for their avoidance in the future. And Phil Chapman presents a researched overview of possible competition, though mostly at a future date. Methane (natural gas) from hydrates is plentiful, but with global Warming and progressive ice-melt it is bleeding rather furiously into the atmosphere and is not locked-in as it is in rocky formations. Fission and fusion would both be nice sources of power – the least obtrusive. Electricity from solar power is the closest in any timeline and is the most acceptable and controllable energy we know how to handle.

  32. Christine said

    Shubber Ali, a “Type 2″ civilization (and I’m assuming that we’re talking about the Kardashev scale) is one that utilizes all of the energy that is made available by a single star, defined as 4*10E26 watts. A civilization would need either a dyson sphere, or to colonize hundreds of solar systems to achieve type 2.

    We currently use ~2*10E13 watts, which makes us roughly a type 0.72. Assuming energy growth over the last 10 years continues, and with all the greenie global warming crap it most certainly won’t, we’ll be on track to reaching type 1 by 2180, and type 2 some time before the heat death of the universe.

  33. Sam Dinkin said

    A tax credit per watt of electricity beamed might not bear any fruit at all until you are within a stone’s throw of the business case closing on its own. If we are researching strategic technologies as options for major development in the event of a spike in fuel prices, a spike in carbon taxes or whatever, then direct subsidy may need to be 10 to 100 times the terrestrial cost of power and the total of the subsidies may need to be on the order of the ethanol subsidies (billions to tens of billions) to see substantial movement on the technology. This approach is dangerous and will have unintended consequences like raising the cost of launching comsats and nav sats (ethanol subsidies lead to high corn prices). The statist/non-statist approach may be less important a dichotomy than how big a dollar commitment in the budget is anticipated. Non-statist approaches tend to be more effective than the same price statist approach, but often it’s easier to get a statist approach passed through Congress. Frequently non-statist approaches become unpalatable politically because they are inherently less regulated. So they result in insufficient market response or too much market response. This is more a problem with non-statist legislation than an inherent flaw in the non-statist approach. A $0.51/gallon ethanol subsidy that is reduced pro-rata to be capped at a $15 billion ethanol subsidy would provide nearly as much incentive to produce ethanol as an unlimited subsidy without the same budget planning issues for the government.

    If you like solar better than fossil fuels, the preference should be expressed as a tax on fossil fuels or a subsidy of solar. If that is insufficient to get it built, then you can target R&D money to it, but you risk bypassing cheaper, better solutions and creating government programs that will outlive their usefulness.

  34. shubber said

    If you like solar better than fossil fuels, the preference should be expressed as a tax on fossil fuels or a subsidy of solar. If that is insufficient to get it built, then you can target R&D money to it, but you risk bypassing cheaper, better solutions and creating government programs that will outlive their usefulness.

    This completely ignores the realities of the power of the existing, well-entrenched lobbies and their control of government. There’s a reason we all use ridiculously inefficient individual transport devices (cars) in big cities, and pay every year for highway building and maintenance, only to sit in traffic jams (and burn even more petrol while we aren’t even moving…).

  35. Des Emery said

    Coyote – Sam Dinkin mentions a choice of either a tax on fossil fuels OR a subsidy for solar power and Shubber reminds us of already-entrenched lobbies working for maintenance of the status quo. How about a blitz advocating BOTH a tax on opposition and a subsidy for the good guys? A campaign, not too in-your-face, against the internal combustion engine – very ‘old-fashioned’ – wasteful – expensive – irritating – noxious – I could go on and on – could sway the general public onto the side of the underdog – you – and even the best lobby could end up hoist on its own petard.

  36. Christine said

    Yes, the reason is because you don’t tax petrol. If petrol were expensive there would be a political demand for more energy efficient modes of transport.

  37. Coyote said

    Des Emery,

    Both ideas would work. Quite frankly, I think both are good ideas, but we have to take into account the will of the two political parties to introduce new taxes on the public. If taxes or “revenue enhancers” are pursued in the name of space-based solar power I suspect one party or the other will immediately line up to oppose the tax and SBSP along with it.

    But this is excellent brain storming. We need a long list of ideas that would work…and then worry about the politics later.

  38. Quite frankly, I think both are good ideas, but we have to take into account the will of the two political parties to introduce new taxes on the public. If taxes or “revenue enhancers” are pursued in the name of space-based solar power I suspect one party or the other will immediately line up to oppose the tax and SBSP along with it.

    Have a look at Zero-G Zero Tax. Great idea that hasn’t ever managed to get anywhere and it is far less “challenging” to the establishment than a complete shift in the status quo from subsidizing and promoting the fossil fuel model of transport in our economy to a tax on that sector and subsidy for a newfangled space idea.

    We need a long list of ideas that would work…and then worry about the politics later.

    Yes and no. I think it is important to keep the brainstorming wide open, but equally to ignore basic realities which are there (and they are) for the sake of keeping the list long, well, arguably we should also not worry about pesky things like economics or physics until later in the discussion. We’d have a hell of a list then, too
    :-)

  39. Sam

    Today the 30% tax credit on solar is already bearing fruit with some pretty big players getting into the game today for terrestrial solar power. Without the tax credits the business case for terrestrial solar does not close until oil gets to be about $150-200 per barrel.

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