[ExI] Thoughts on Space based solar power (alternatives)

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sun Nov 23 19:24:17 UTC 2008

hkhenson wrote:
> 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 
some ways.

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 
course. :-)

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.

--Paul Fernhout
(*) 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.

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list