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

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sun Nov 23 19:36:56 UTC 2008

The Avantguardian wrote:
 > I agree. Heaven on earth is an engineering problem. It's only money and
 > politics that make a monkey-hell of this place. But hey the sun is always
 > shining *somewhere*, right? :-)

 From Bucky Fuller:
"Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race 
right up to the final moment. . . . Humanity is in ‘final exam’ as to 
whether or not it qualifies for continuance in Universe."

Thanks for all the great comments. Those biodiesel algae stacks you 
mentioned sound mighty interesting. I looked it up just now:

This title sounded funniest: :-)
   "15 Algae Startups Bringing Pond Scum to Fuel Tanks « Earth2Tech"
"If corn-based biofuels are the Britney Spears of the cleantech world (a 
fallen star but still all over the place), fuel made from algae is the next 
great American Idol winner (major potential in the pipeline). And despite 
the fact that algae-to-biofuel startups have been taking their sweet time 
bringing a pond scum fuel product to market, some inroads have been made 
recently — GreenFuel is building its first plant, PetroSun starts producing 
at their farm on April 1, and big oil Chevron and Shell have made some early 
bets as well."

I think part of what we are seeing even now is these extropian ideas are 
being mediated through services like Google which are letting us find and 
connect information like never before -- because the speed and ease makes it 
so much more possible. If I had to travel to a library to look this stuff 
up, I could not. I learned a lot about sustainable energy and related ideas 
in the mid 1980s when I was around a big university library and had lots of 
time to access it. But while I have bought books on the topic since, it was 
not until the last five years that I started to have that level of access 
possible again because I could do it at home and more and more information 
was onlin. Granted, I could have hung out at universities in some capacity, 
but that itself implies a certain mindset and set of politics (depending in 
part on the university). I said something like that in 2004 when for the 
first time Google was letting me connect the dots quickly about alternatives 
in a way I never would have been able to do before (including cutting and 
pasting quotes and using URLs as citations -- I always disliked formatting 
bibliographies using footnotes). My comment then:
"First, as a side note, I could not have written an essay like this
before the World Wide Web -- I just would not have had the time to cover
so many areas in a couple days writing from home, far from a university
library, and relying on Google to make solid ideas that were just wisps
of memory (from years of reading broadly on the web); nor would I before
the wide adoption of the internet and email and the world wide web have
been able to provide immediately accessible links for further
exploration by readers, all at essentially no direct monetary cost. That
is an example of the sort of exponential increase in technological
capacity this essay is referring to. I certainly would not call this
essay a scholarly work as it neither cites enough primary sources or
connects all the dots, and I'm sure it has its share of flaws, but
please consider it as a proof of concept that if even a little of what I
write is true, there is enough to go around and make this Earth a more
fantastic and more free place for every being on it."

Google pagerank is powered in part by analyzing linking other people have 
done, as an indirect form of social collaboration. So, an individual using 
Google as a kind of mind extension (as I do, to bring back clearly some hazy 
memories, as well as to learn new things) is a balance of individual memory 
and collective memory. It's interesting to see that as a way of mind 
extension -- this balancing of some of and individual's intelligent activity 
online is emerging out of the history as an individual, and some of it is 
emerging out of the current state of a broad social network, and those two 
interact in various ways as an individual was online. For me, I can see that 
if I was talking about sustainability away from my computer, I could not 
have at my fingertips such a level of detail. Obviously, beyond that 
limitation, face-to-face communications for humans have their own merits.

And then there are emerging trends of trying to have the best of both by 
merging holding face-to-face meetings where everyone has a wireless laptop 
and there is a meeting-specific wiki and chat going for the meeting (plus 
local Google searches); again, I got that from the Shirky article link that 
Keith posted to this list in his "Online social groups" post and is found here:
And this pattern of ubiquity lets you start taking this for granted. Bill 
Joy once said "My method is to look at something that seems like a good idea 
and assume it's true." We're starting to see software that simply assumes 
that all offline groups will have an online component, no matter what.
It is now possible for every grouping, from a Girl Scout troop on up, to 
have an online component, and for it to be lightweight and easy to manage. 
And that's a different kind of thing than the old pattern of "online 
community." I have this image of two hula hoops, the old two-hula hoop 
world, where my real life is over here, and my online life is over there, 
and there wasn't much overlap between them. If the hula hoops are swung 
together, and everyone who's offline is also online, at least from my point 
of view, that's a different kind of pattern.
There's a second kind of ubiquity, which is the kind we're enjoying here 
thanks to Wifi. If you assume whenever a group of people are gathered 
together, that they can be both face to face and online at the same time, 
you can start to do different kinds of things. I now don't run a meeting 
without either having a chat room or a wiki up and running. Three weeks ago 
I ran a meeting for the Library of Congress. We had a wiki, set up by 
Socialtext, to capture a large and very dense amount of technical 
information on long-term digital preservation.
The people who organized the meeting had never used a wiki before, and now 
the Library of Congress is talking as if they always had a wiki for their 
meetings, and are assuming it's going to be at the next meeting as well -- 
the wiki went from novel to normal in a couple of days.
It really quickly becomes an assumption that a group can do things like "Oh, 
I took my PowerPoint slides, I showed them, and then I dumped them into the 
wiki. So now you can get at them." It becomes a sort of shared repository 
for group memory. This is new. These kinds of ubiquity, both everyone is 
online, and everyone who's in a room can be online together at the same 
time, can lead to new patterns.

So, those new patterns are (hopefully) giving the average person more 
options to "Think Globally; act locally; plan modestly" in a very hands-on 
way. One issue I continue to have with solar space satellites is that even 
if they were "cheaper" (which I still question), they demand a form of 
social organization (and maybe engineering mathematics :-) which is simply 
disempowering to the average person, who might otherwise be able to 
understand an algae pond producing biodiesel, and perhaps incrementally move 
to use such technology locally. Some of that is familiarity, but some of 
that is also "touchability". Unless you have your own shuttlecraft, you 
can't touch all the parts of a space based energy system like you can with 
local options. That's obviously a psychological issue -- including since 
behind the solar panel on your roof that you can touch is a manufacturing 
web right now that you can't touch. (Of course, the sun is untouchable too, 
but has always been in a special category in our thoughts.)
Still, one can obviously touch a rectenna that receives microwaved power, 
and we use technology all the time that uses antennas these days without 
thinking much about it. It depends what parts of the system you take for 
granted, as well as what parts you can work on incrementally. As an 
individual, I can in theory put an algae pond in my backyard, but I can't 
even begin to think about launching a solar power satellite. So, as an 
individual, thinking about algae empowers me, but thinking about SPS 
disempowers me.

Granted, engineering decisions don't have to be made that way (only for what 
one person can do), and there is a lot to be said for collective action. 
Long term, we may well have SPS systems as part of Earth's energy mix, and 
we might even move more towards them as time goes by. But people can do 
other alternatives themselves right now which appear to be low risk. So, I 
still feel that SPS is taking all the space-related social energy that could 
go into space habitat design, and directing it in a way that isn't going to 
make an essential difference, given these other ground-based alternatives 
that are happening everywhere.

Building on what I said at the start, after a lot of people are living in 
space (due to amateur hobbyist efforts), SPS becomes a lot more possible, as 
a charitable thing that spacers can do for "free" for Mother Earth, just to 
be nice. :-) Of course, Earth people might say "no thanks" out of pride, if 
they have other options in use by then. :-)

--Paul Fernhout

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