[ExI] Thoughts on Space based solar power

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sat Nov 22 05:13:28 UTC 2008

(Hi, I'm new around here. Bryan Bishop pointed me here and I've been lurking
for a month or so. :-)


While I am all for the kind of legislative proposals you suggest to promote
renewables in general, there are economic aspects of space-to-Earth power
which are often not discussed.

I spent a long time around 2003 and 2004 on the SSI email list (now on yahoo
groups if you want to look at the archives) explaining why space-based solar
power will not in any likely time frame be of any value on Earth. :-)
And I want to make it clear I was a SSI Senior Associate (five year pledge
of money) back in the 1980s, and even took a (intro Physics) course from
Gerry O'Neill. So this in not just a casual disagreement. I am very sad that
the Space Studies Institute even now pushes an outdated agenda (well, now
they are moving to scaring people with asteroids, to the extent they are
still operating). I feel if Gerry O'Neill was around now he might agree with
this analysis of the current prospects for space-based power in the next few
decades, since he always was an adaptable and innovative guy, even if,
unfortunately, ultimately an unsuccessful businessperson with GeoStar and
LAWN with which he hoped to fund space habitation. I think by coupling the
two -- a desire to build space habitations coupled with economic arguments
for space solar power (or even other space activities) -- that one may miss
out on sooner realizing the dream of space habitation done for its own sake
(as a hobby).

The core points of the argument I advanced there:

* About a third to one half the cost of residential electric service is
maintaining transmission lines. So, at best, space solar even if *free* at
the ground station will be at best one-third the cost of utility power is
now at the home meter. As the costs of home power generation fall from
advanced manufacturing, the cost of home solar power (or wind, or
cogeneration) will drop below that cost at some point for self-contained
homes producing all or most of their own power, making space solar power
obsolete for home use. Since space solar power will initially be expensive,
it is non-viable right now. And since the cost of solar panels (like
Nanosolar's) is dropping way faster than the cost of space operations, and
since solar space satellites have a twenty to thirty year time horizon for
significant production, they are a non-starter and too risky investment
comparatively. Things might have been different in the 1970s, but it is
thirty years later. Also, one can make an argument for limited solar power
for large commercial facilities producing aluminum or liquid fuels or doing
laser launching, but that is only likely to be worth doing once we already
have a space presence since then only the incremental costs will need to be
paid, rather than expect solar power to pay to develop a space
infrastructure as O'Neill and others proposed (and people still propose).
I'm sure one can look hard at situations where transmission costs are
minimized, but this cost of transmission argument is a very deep one and
I've never seen it rigorously discussed. We know how to do solar on the
ground, there are ways to store the energy at night (molten salts, ever
improving batteries, pumping water up hill, compressed air, production of
synthetic liquid fuels, production of hydrogen, a superconducting world wide
grid backbone, etc.), and there are complementary technologies like wind
power and cogeneration by burning biomass that together with solar produce
fairly reliable power (as well as a lot of local hands-on jobs in the short
term). And there are organizations promoting R&D to make this all even better:

* A rebuttal to this is that PV production produces pollution in the
manufacturing stage (which is true to some extent)
and producing solar power satellites totally with advanced automation using
lunar materials will be pollution-free on Earth. However, a counter-rebuttal
(took me a while to think of this, as it is subtle :-) is that free power
from space (ignoring the above distribution costs) would only make it easier
to bury ourselves in manufacturing wastes from consumer goods. Without
cradle-to-cradle design with closed manufacturing with zero emissions, we
are in a lot of trouble no matter where the energy comes from. And if you
have zero emissions manufacturing with total recycling on Earth, then you
can just as well make PV power systems on Earth without pollution worries.
So it seems like a focus on advanced manufacturing on Earth is a better
investment (especially by developing an open manufacturing system that
considers holistic impacts, and I noticed this thread mostly because Bryan
forwarded your note to the OpenVirgle list, which is also related to "open 

* In general, like conventional nuclear power, solar space satellites assume
a concentration of capital and decision making and political control, which
is opposite of the way our society needs to move for energy security IMHO
(and I learned that from the opinions of people like Amory Lovins and Hunter
Lovins who studied energy security for the Pentagon, resulting in the book,
Brittle Power).
"Brittle Power: Energy Strategy for National Security is a 1982 book by
Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, prepared originally as a Pentagon
study, and re-released in 2001 following the September 11 attacks. The book
argues that domestic energy infrastructure is very vulnerable to disruption,
by accident or malice, often even more so than imported oil. According to
the authors, a resilient energy system is feasible, costs less, works
better, is favoured in the market, but is rejected by U.S. policy. In the
preface to the 2001 edition, Lovins explains that these themes are still
very current."

IMHO, we might see space-based power on Earth in the long term future -- but
only after we otherwise have a space infrastructure, which is not why most
people push it now. What I saw from years of participating in SSI activities
is that, deep down, most SSI people saw Solar Power Satellites as a way to
fund space habitats (as many cared mostly about the space habitations). I'm
not saying they did not care at all about Earth's environmental issues, but
they often came second. I see solar space satellites as a distraction from
other approaches to promoting space habitation more directly, given that I
feel we have a very real opportunity using the internet to just design and
build space habitations ourselves (perhaps involving one billionaire footing
the bill for one self-replicating seed we collectively design).

A related paper I gave at an SSI conference in 2001:
    "A Review of Licensing and Collaborative Development with Special
Attention to Design of Self-Replicating Space Habitat Systems"
"At this moment nearly every engineer on earth has a powerful and globally 
networked computer in his or her home. Collaborative volunteer efforts are 
now possible on an unprecedented scale. Moores's Law predicts continued 
reductions in the cost of bandwidth, storage, CPU power, and displays - 
which will lead to computers a million times faster, bigger or cheaper in 
the next few decades. Collaboration software such as for sending email, 
holding real-time video conferences, and viewing design drawings is also 
reducing in cost; much of it is now effectively free. This means there are 
now few technical or high-cost barriers to cooperation among engineers, many 
of whom even now have in their homes (often merely for game playing reasons) 
computing power and bandwidth beyond anything available to the best equipped 
engineers in the 1970s. ... We believe that thousands of individuals (such 
as the people at this conference) are ready and willing to make compromises 
in their own lives to nurture the space settlement dream at the grassroots 
level - but in a more direct way than has been attempted thus far. In 
particular, individuals could collaborate on the iterative development of 
detailed space habitat designs and simulations using nothing more than the 
computers they already have at home for playing games. While excellent 
progress has been made on the general engineering design of space habitats 
(in terms of basic physics and proof-of-concept projects), many of the 
details remain to be worked out. There have been individual attempts in some 
of these areas (e.g., the SSI Matrix effort), but a persistent collaborative 
community has not yet coalesced around constructing a comprehensive and 
non-proprietary library of such details."

There are a lot of good reasons to develop space habitations. Cheap energy
beamed back to Earth in the short term is not one of them IMHO. The biggest
reason for space habitation may in the end simply be the new ideas that will
come from them. But space habitations also may provide lots of living room,
with cities in space that could house trillions of people and huge new
ecologies. Using space resources in space for people who live there is the
long term value proposition IMHO. And, while we may not have space
habitations now, even  the dream of them can give us hope that all of
Earth's current "crises" are  not very serious in the long term. (Of course,
in the future, with the  Singularity looming, there are other things to
worry about. :-)

I recognize that we may disagree on this strategy, but hopefully we can
still agree that space habitations are a really neat idea for a lot of
reasons and work together on the rest of that. And even should I be
completely right about this (maybe I'm wrong in details or the entire
picture), thinking about the space operations needed to build and maintain
large structures like power satellites is a good thing, so I don't want to
discourage you from the practical side of such investigations and designs.
Certainly we can both agree that we could use Solar Power Satellites in
space to do space operations, so we both agree the technology of space power
is worth developing in general. My point here (and the nature of any
disagreement) has more to do with economic and marketing strategy of space
habitation initiatives.

And, as a disclaimer, I am linking below a couple of sites I am connected
with that have a more hobby-oriented focus which are alternatives to a
business-approach to space habitation. (There are others too, some discussed
or linked from those sites.) I did not have the sites up when I made the
initial points above, but they flow out of my position on the most feasible
approaches towards space habitation as our society moves in a post-scarcity
direction. I feel if the general open manufacturing initiative had the same
sort of energy put into it (pun intended :-) that solar space satellites
have had in the past, we would see space habitations sooner, all things

I do dislike having to publicly disagree with you about anything (like SPS), 
as I admire your courage and vision (and your wife's) in founding the L5 
On the other hand, I feel it might be disrespectful to your broader vision 
of humanity moving into space not to disagree on this one point. :-)

--Paul Fernhout

hkhenson wrote:
> Charles Miller has proposed legislation be passed similar to that in 
> Germany which provides that the utilities have to buy solar power at a 
> high per kWh rate for a limited amount and pass on the cost to their 
> customers.  We are still tuning the economic model, for one thing, we 
> are still trying to reach a consensus that $350 billion is enough to 
> finance the operation through profitability
> .
> I have been trying to draft something that makes an international 
> cooperative possible.  Try this for size.  Please comment.
> "International provisions
> "It is in the national interest of the United States for all countries 
> to have access to abundant, low cost, renewable energy, particularly non 
> nuclear energy.
> "Therefore the market guarantee provisions of this legislation are open 
> on a reciprocal basis to companies based in any country that enacts 
> provisions essential identical market guarantees to those in the above 
> financing model for the purchase of space based solar energy.
> "Because world wide energy security contributes greatly to US national 
> security, it is the intent of this legislation to remove barriers to 
> shared technology to solve shared energy problems.  In particular, all 
> technologies related to space based solar power are exempted from ITAR."

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