[ExI] Thoughts on Space based solar power (alternatives)
Paul D. Fernhout
pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sun Nov 23 19:24:17 UTC 2008
> At 05:53 PM 11/22/2008, Paul wrote:
>>> And here is the deeper issue -- we are arguing here over renewable
>>> energy prospects, not the best way to make space habitation happen.
> There are practical and political problems with paving Arizona with
> solar panels. For example, the locals may object. The same is true of
> putting in an area of solar panels equal to the area of the roads.
The current system in unsustainable. Everyone will object if it fails. Who
is going to suffer in the transition? That's politics, sadly, and if it is
like usual, it will be the politically poor and weak who suffer most, no
matter what the solutions are. As a society, we can try to redress this in
part by money, but money only goes so far in dealing with issues like the
desecration of sacred lands or the loss of social capital when forced to
move though an application of "eminent domain". Hydropower dams are good
examples of that, and many people are questioning them. But, there are other
options as well -- energy efficiency and ocean solar are two of them. One
reduces demand, the other would involve producing energy on large floating
cities in the ocean and sending it onshore via power cables or hydrogen or
synthetic liquid fuels. Of course, whether ocean operations are easier than
space operations is questionable, but a lot more people know about ocean
operations, same as why Microsoft Windows is still dominant on the desktop
from inertia even with GNU/Linux as a free alternative that is better in
Part of how I feel on solar space satellites is also how I feel about
nuclear power. Politics is perhaps the biggest issue in some ways, as either
involves trusting to a remote elite (financial or technical) for my daily
electricity. On an engineering "time constant" basis(*), the time constant
for depending on elites to give me electricity when I buy a solar panel is
every thirty years or so. :-) The time constant for depending on elites when
I get my power from a grid powered by solar power satellites is
microseconds. :-( So, for me, on that basis, local solutions have a lot of
merit if they are in anyway comparable in costs (including local labor time
costs, depending how I feel about the labor, for example some people like to
chop wood, but many do not, as you pointed out.) Still, there are nuclear
reactor proposals where a single home or small cluster of homes could be
powered by a long-lived maintenance free reactor, so that is progress.
For 20000 people: "Mini Nuclear Reactors to Power Remote Areas"
For 200 people: "Toshiba Builds 100x Smaller Micro Nuclear Reactor "
From the second one: "The 200 kilowatt Toshiba designed reactor is
engineered to be fail-safe and totally automatic and will not overheat.
Unlike traditional nuclear reactors the new micro reactor uses no control
rods to initiate the reaction. The new revolutionary technology uses
reservoirs of liquid lithium-6, an isotope that is effective at absorbing
neutrons. The Lithium-6 reservoirs are connected to a vertical tube that
fits into the reactor core. The whole whole process is self sustaining and
can last for up to 40 years, producing electricity for only 5 cents per
kilowatt hour, about half the cost of grid energy."
Though I still have concerns there in relation to weapons proliferation and
other environmental risks, as well as adopting a wait and see attitude on
reliability and common mode failures. But can SPS compete anytime soon with
5 cents per kW with no grid costs (or just local wiring costs)?
Between the two, nuclear and SPS, I'd probably prefer the SPS solution, of
For *both* nuclear and SPS, I could personally accept occasional big
accidents as balanced against people falling off roofs putting up solar
panels or other downsides to PV production. One could ignore orbital debris
risks if as you suggest they are minimal. If those were the only
considerations, it is possible the value either nuclear energy (via breeder
reactors) or SPS provide might be worth it, if the economics was OK and the
politics was not an issue (that is, if you could trust the operators a lot).
For, say, the UK, a few hundred Taj Mahal looking nuclear power plants (with
the mining hidden away somehow) or just some rectennas over grazing fields
(with launches again hidden away) may indeed be preferrable on aesthetic
grounds to paving over 5% of the English countryside to go 100%
solar-electric. Many people might prefer the nuclear or SPS option if that
was the choice. (Thankfully, we don't have to choose either extreme, and
even for ground solar, it can be distributed, and we have not even begun to
consider what if PV collectors looked like green trees instead of panels?)
But, the history of nuclear power has a lot of coverups
and ignored external costs precisely *because* it is done in a capitalist
scarcity-oriented political and military framework. I imagine SPS would face
the same sets of issues long term. For example, governments would see
control of the SPS network as a top strategic priority, including the
ability to deny access to it to other nations. Or, there would be corporate
consolidation of commercial PV owners of satellites until there was only one
or two mega-power utilities, who basically could, with Google, dominate the
Still, having said that, I use Google all the time and a lot of power for my
area comes from nuclear power plants. But one can use a service without
being happy about all the political implications of it, and one can work
towards change (including reducing consumption).
So, that's another reason I am reluctant to endorse SPS as a global solution
-- political issues in relation to centralization of control and dependency
on short-time constant energy supplie. However, I still feel the grid
operation costs and the need for cradle-to-cradle manufacturing no matter
where power comes from (to avoid being drown in consumer waste) are the
pocketbook and environmental issues people will care about most when
evaluating SPS as a single solution. When I posted on this to the SSI list
around 2003 and 2004, I went into many of these other sorts of things too
(and people did have interesting and informative responses), but they are
more complex issues to discuss, and hinge on things like people's
willingness to depend on elites, which is a lot more variable than the
economic or pollution issues.
(*) Even with local solar panels, I would still depend on, say, Russian
elites to keep their nuclear missiles from launching accidentally, of
course, so there are other elites one may depend on daily.
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