Drill Up and Power Down

Beam power down, that is! American hero and Presidential ear-haver Dr. Buzz Aldrin has this to say about Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP):

“The timing of the oil catastrophe is a great opportunity for re-evaluating solar energy from space.”

(Note: The above is sourced from just one of many sites repeating this news.)

Rather…broad, isn’t it? Nevertheless, it is my firm belief that only by harvesting offworld resource will we as a species survive in the long term without catastrophic population failure or ignominious population controls. The fastest and most topical means of doing that on a wide scale is to begin harvesting energy from the Sun–and this time, to power our cities and electronics, not just our palate (through, of course, plants).

This news makes the rounds in response to a Presidential call for more innovation, with the goal of turning America into an energy exporter instead of a billion-dollar energy importer:

“The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.”

Well, yeah. It was yesterday, too, but at least the time specified isn’t “tomorrow”.

Anyway, in my opinion, SBSP is the only means of providing clean long-term baseload power to the United States. Nuclear fission energy is a great alternative for areas which can’t get access to a GEO (Geosynchronous Earth Orbit) Solar Power Satellite (SPS or Powersat), or to provide additional electrical capacity, or to provide a gap-closing measure until SBSP is ready nationwide. Nuclear fusion power would be awesome (and provide incentive for long-term lunar mining operations) if we, you know, had second-generation fusion (using helium-3 instead of tritium). Or first-generation fusion. Ahem.

This report from the National Space Society says that a kilometer-wide “insolation band” at GEO–namely, a band through which solar energy passes, or so I interpret–experiences enough solar energy flux in one year (about 212 TW-years) to almost equal all of the remaining recoverable oil on the planet (about 250 TW-years). Though it would take a great deal of material to cover all of that space, I believe the point is made: there is much energy to be had in space, and we have to get at it.

It’s long been popularized that oil money is used to fund terrorism. I have no evidence one way or the other, so I will not comment on the truth or fiction of that statement. However, it is pretty obvious that relying on another country for something so incredibly fundamental to our civilization and our way of life is probably something of a national security concern. Therefore, independent access to electrical power through SBSP not only helps our environment, it helps keep our country safe.

It has been said that we in the United States have enough coal to last us for the next three centuries or so. Assuming this is true, coal is still a relatively highly pollutant means of generating electricity. Even if it wasn’t, it’s still a nonrenewable resource, and I doubt demand for electrical power is going to go down, especially if efforts succeed in “raising” developing nations into stability and prosperity.

So SBSP is good for the world and the United States, but is it possible and cost-effective? Some have supposed a break-even point at about the three-year mark, and it’s certainly possible. For example, all of the elements–collection and transmission of solar energy–have been demonstrated, even through atmosphere.

The beam is milder than actual sunlight–though still more energy-dense–so it can’t be used to harm anything. The satellites are in a very obvious and difficult-to-reach orbit, so security is likely less of an issue (the ground-based stations are simpler and easier to repair if anything does go wrong). The satellites are also in GEO, so they are obscured by the Earth for something like twenty minutes per year, so the day-night cycle that dooms terrestrial solar power is deftly avoided.

Also of note: the resources necessary in constructing and maintaining such a large number of huge structures will likely drive down launch costs and broaden civilian and commercial access to space. Two birds with one kilometer-wide solar panel, eh? Or smaller, depending on the configuration.

I won’t ramble on too much here, but suffice it to say that SBSP seems to be the only viable long-term solution to solving the energy problem, as well as related security and environmental problems connected to current energy sources. It does bother me though that, after being proposed on the then-President-Elect’s web page, little has been done about it–save to say that even a conference is impractical, despite a SBSP conference being the highest-rated suggestion on NASA’s Open Government Initiative idea submission site.

So, we need what it provides, and its side-effects are ultimately beneficial as well. So why aren’t we on this? I don’t know, but maybe the President knows something I don’t. From the NYT:

“[President Obama] said progress [on energy independence] had been blocked time and time again by ‘oil industry lobbyists,’ and he suggested that achieving energy independence was an issue of national security, saying the time has come for the United States to ‘seize control of our own destiny.'”

My favorite line? This one:

โ€œThe one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet.โ€

Well then, maybe we can start with that conference? I’ll see you there.

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