2007/10/14

How to achieve energy independence

Whenever the subject of excessive dependence on oil imports comes up, someone always calls for achieving energy independence, but then the discussion gets diverted into such remedies as energy conservation, wind farms, geothermal and ocean thermal sources, ground-based photovoltaic arrays, biofuels, coal, ocean deposits of methyl hydrate, and, of course, the big ones -- nuclear or fusion reactors.

However, there are problems will all of those. No reasonable amount of conservation is going to keep our economy going if energy supplies are cut off. Wind farms, and geothermal and ocean thermal sources, can help in some places, but one can't depend on them as a replacement for fossil fuels. Ground-based photovoltaic systems are still somewhat expensive, although the cost is coming down. Biofuels turn out to cost more energy and other resources than they save, at least if corn is used instead of sugar cane or switchgrass. Coal and methyl hydrate will just accelerate the global warming problem. Nuclear presents the problems of waste disposal and proliferation, and fusion reactors don't work yet.

The one alternative that is seldom mentioned is space solar power: putting photovoltaic arrays in orbit and beaming the power to receiving antennas on the Earth. It is not a new idea. It is estimated that about 40 satellites in geosynchronous orbit could meet the needs for energy of the entire world, and it it was the United States who puts them up and operates them, we would be the energy exporters to the world instead of importers. Once in operation, it is estimated the cost of energy from them would be less than half the cost from other sources, and that it could pay off the investment to put up the system in less than a decade. It requires little new technology, other than ways to bring down the costs for vary large systems. It has much support from leading engineers and scientists, including a team within NASA. And nations like Japan are moving ahead to do it without waiting for us.

So why aren't we doing it? The answer, as usual, is politics. The alternative is opposed by the proponents of nuclear power, who keep making the argument that Earth-to-orbit lift costs are too high, when the proposal has long been to use materials mined from the Moon or an asteroid rather than lifted from Earth. The real problem for them is that such a proposal doesn't make them a lot of money. It would be creating an industrial system in space that they would not control and from which they could not profit.

And of course, they don't hesitate to raise other objections:
1. It is too "Buck Rogers". Silly argument, considering what we have done in the last 50 years, but they make it.
2. It would be vulnerable to attack by space weapons. And oil tankers, refineries, pipelines, and nuclear power plants aren't?
3. It would be vulnerable to space radiation and coronal mass ejections. They can be hardened against that, as we already do with communications satellites.
4. They could become platforms for death rays. Yes, but all the more reason that we put them up instead of someone else.
5. The power beams would disrupt migrating wildlife. The heating effect would be less than sunbeams through clouds, negligible.
6. The satellites would brighten the night sky, impairing ground-based astronomy. But we could move the telescopes out into space, even putting them on the solar power satellites.
7. The space aliens might object. Okay, this is for humor. But since the satellites would support the effort to defend the Earth from impacts with asteroids and comets, one suspects the aliens wouldn't object to us doing that.

Check out some of these links:
Space Studies Institute http://ssi.org/
Sunsat Energy Council http://www.sunsat.org/
NASA
http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/ABSTRACTS/GPN-2003-00108.html
http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/legaff/solar.html
http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast23mar_1.htm
http://space-power.grc.nasa.gov/ppo/projects/sdp/
Solar Power Satellites http://www.freemars.org/history/sps.html
Wikipedia articles
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_satellite
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microwave_power_transmission
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_energy_development
Space.com
http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/technology/solar_power_sats_011017-1.html
http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/technology/space_solar_000908.html
http://www.space.com/businesstechnology/technology/solar_power_satellite_000421.html
Space Daily http://www.spacedaily.com/news/ssp-01a.html
Reinventing the Solar Power Satellite http://gltrs.grc.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/GLTRS/browse.pl?2004/TM-2004-212743.html
Solar Power Satellite Place http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/solarpowersatelliteplace/
Space Solar Power Library http://www.nss.org/settlement/ssp/library/index.htm
Space Based Weather Control http://www.borderlands.com/spacewea.htm
Resources for the Future http://www.rff.org/rff/News/Releases/2000/Satellite-Solar-Power-Faces-Considerable-Economic-Challenges.cfm
Access to Energy http://www.accesstoenergy.com/view/atearchive/s76a4466.htm
Lift Elevators to Space http://www.liftport.com/forums/index.php?topic=619.0
MSNBC http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2007/09/07/350320.aspx

What you can do is spread this message with the suggestion that everyone write to their favorite media urging them to provide more coverage of this alternative. The time for replacement of fossil fuels is already very late.

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