[ExI] Thoughts on Space based solar power

hkhenson hkhenson at rogers.com
Sat Nov 22 06:52:55 UTC 2008

At 10:13 PM 11/21/2008, you wrote:
>(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.
>    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_satellite
>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. :-)
>    http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/ssi_list/

As recently as last year I would have agreed with you.

>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the Space Studies Institute even now pushes an outdated agenda (well, now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).

Freeman Dyson killed people doing space habitats on their own.  Read 
the chapter in Disturbing the Universe on Pilgrims, Saints and 
Spacemen.  In short Dyson made the case that going into space was 
10,000 times to expensive.

>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:
>      http://www.google.com/corporate/green/energy/

You are just wrong on these points.  There is *no* source or 
combination of sources on earth that will replace fossil fuels.

>* A rebuttal to this is that PV production produces pollution in the
>manufacturing stage (which is true to some extent)
>    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaic#Environmental_impacts
>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.

Perhaps.  But if you are going to recycle these things you need 
energy to do it.

>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 manufacturing").
>    http://groups.google.com/group/openmanufacturing
>    http://groups.google.com/group/openvirgle
>* 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).
>    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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."

I know these arguments.  But if you think making your own energy is 
cost and time efficient you are just wrong.  After you have heated 
your house for two winters, going on a third, with wood come back and 
talk about it.  And that's not even beginning to deal with electric power.

I don't see any reason some hundreds to a thousand power sats and 
rectennas would be any more brittle than the current 
situation.  Rectenna goes out, there are several feeding that section 
of the grid.  Power sat dies, there are spares.  Should be more 
robust.  The only common mode would be a big solar flare wiping out 
the PV cells.  For other reasons I doubt PV cells will be used anyway.

>IMHO, we might see space-based power on Earth in the long term future --

There *is* no long term future.  I don't expect physical state humans 
to exist long after the singularity and that's extremely likely to 
happen before the end of the century.  The reasoning is so twisted 
that I had to resort to fiction to get the ideas across.  Many on 
this list have read "the clinic seed."  The reason to go after power 
sats built entirely from the ground is to prevent famines and 
resource wars before the singularity.

There is also the possibility that AIs cobbled together in the heat 
of a war might be a lot more dangerous than ones put together in a 
peaceful time.  But I can't guarantee that either.

>  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,

I am not even discussing space habitats when talking about power sats 
in the current mode where all the parts have to come up from the 
earth.  There might be a few, perhaps even up to a thousand, people 
in GEO monitoring the equipment that's turning out power sats but 
this isn't what O'Neill had in mind.  I frankly don't think there 
will be any serious human habitation of space this side of the 
singularity and after that who knows?  In any case, humans as we know 
them will not be in charge.

>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"
>    http://www.kurtz-fernhout.com/oscomak/SSI_Fernhout2001_web.html
>"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."

You might note as a data point that I have yet to get people one this 
list or several other ones to even check my calculations on the web 
pages that underlie what we are discussing here.  This is hard work, 
rocket science work.

>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.

Cheap energy beamed back to earth and used for such things as making 
synthetic fuel out of water and carbon dioxide is a good reason to 
develop space based solar power.

>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.

They may be a good idea, but there simply isn't time for them to 
happen before the singularity.

>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 society.
>   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L5_Society
>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. :-)

I understand your points, but consider them to be way out of 
date.  Time marches on and the future isn't what it used to be. Sorry.


>--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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