Sun Power: The Global Solution for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 1

Copyright 1995 by Ralph Nansen, reproduced with permission
Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Challenge for the Twenty-First Century


The sun. Worshipped by ancient people as the basis of all life, rising in glory each morning, climbing to the apex of the sky. Brilliant in its blinding white radiance — a seething mass of gases. An atomic furnace radiating energy into the great void of space — year after year for billions of years.

The earth. A blue-and-white swirl of beauty in the cold universe and yet bathed in the sun’s life-giving light since its beginning. Teeming with untold billions of humans striving for a better life and yet hurtling toward destruction in that mad quest.

What new wonders can the sun hold in store for us in the next century? What will the world be like in the twenty-first century? Will America be a prosperous, dynamic nation or will our children’s children look to us and ask, “What happened to our world?”

Did people living at the end of the nineteenth century, just one hundred years ago, have any idea of the changes the twentieth century would bring? Could they have imagined tens of millions of automobiles crowding the streets of our cities and driving across this great land on broad interstate highways? How could they possibly imagine millions of people traveling through the sky in sleek jets at 500 miles an hour? Or believe that man could walk on the moon? Imagine their amazement at a modern shopping mall. Would they believe a telephone call reaching halfway around the world in an instant by way of a communications satellite? What would be their reaction as they watch me writing this book at a computer the size of a book?

What made these things possible for the twentieth century? What was it that brought such prosperity to society, allowing both leisure time and money to enjoy the great American dream? It was energy. Or, more precisely, oil. Vast quantities of cheap oil provided not only the fuel that made automobiles and airplanes practical, but also fueled the dynamic economy that made the United States the industrial giant of the century. It created jobs, built enormous private fortunes, and helped win wars. Other energy sources — natural gas, coal, hydroelectric, and nuclear — contributed to the overall picture, but it was oil that controlled the price and led the way to prosperity for the United States in the twentieth century.

Now we must ask the question for our children: “What about the future?” Can our present energy sources sustain the increased billions of inhabitants added to the planet? Will energy-hungry developed nations seize oil-producing countries to gain control of their resources, or will oil producers become international dictators? Are there enough reserves of natural resources to sustain the world of the future? What will be the price of fuel? What will be the terrible price of the ever-increasing cocoon of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warming the earth? Will burgeoning nuclear waste create vast wastelands of uninhabitable landscapes? How great will be the scourge of hopeless, starving, emerging nations as they reach out to neighboring lands in a desperate search for survival? Can our generation continue to turn sightless eyes to environmental pollution as we blindly follow a path surely leading to the destruction of the earth?

Today the United States, with less than 5% of the world’s population, consumes one quarter of the world’s energy production. Three-fourths of the rest of the world lives in poverty. Many are on the verge of starvation, and the population of the world is increasing at a rate of nearly a quarter-million people per day.

If this increasing population used energy produced by fossil fuels at the same rate as the United States, the world would soon be overcome by the by-products of combustion—atmospheric pollutants and carbon dioxide. Even now, some scientists predict that in a few decades our planet will be devastated by changing weather patterns and possibly even flooded by the melting ice cap. And we’d be draining our finite fossil-fuel resources at an alarming rate. We’d bankrupt both the breathable air and the energy reserves of our only home.

This prospect is frightening, but you may be thinking it will not happen — that it’s just more doomsaying. The really frightening aspect is that it is already happening without all of the underdeveloped nations participating. World energy consumption continues to increase as nations like China gain economic strength. The air in their cities is choked with the products of combustion. The carbon dioxide level of the earth’s atmosphere is increasing at an ever-accelerating rate.

What are we doing to our planet? What will be the result of our complacency?

The vision of the twenty-first century is overcast with these threatening clouds of the overwhelming problems in our world in the closing years of the twentieth century. Future historians will judge the decisions we make as we seek to solve the immediate problems of today. Will energy hold the key for the future as it did for the past?

From the beginning of time, energy has been essential to the development of civilizations. Control of fire allowed the Bronze and Iron Ages to reach great heights. Later, coal fueled the industrial revolution in England. The pace quickened with explosive development in the twentieth century as the earth yielded untold riches of oil. The world experienced unprecedented economic growth and technological development, but there were warning signs of serious trouble.

The economy of the United States peaked in 1973 and has been in decline ever since. The resulting decay in the standard of living of its people is measured by the drop in real income of its citizens. The last year of abundant low-cost oil was 1973. Today, two decades later, the United States is finally recovering from a long recession that still has much of the rest of the world in its grip. But all is not well as industries and jobs have been lost or forced to shift to less productive service jobs. Cruel damage is being inflicted on the earth and its people by changing weather patterns caused by global warming, evidence of the effects of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.

What can be done to fix the long-term economy? What can be done to stop the deterioration of the world’s environment? What must be done? Can we continue to ignore the condition of the world we will leave to our children?

Questions are easy, answers are difficult. However, in an attempt to address all the others, let me pose one more question: What do we need to do now to ensure a prosperous and long-lasting world for our children, their children, and the generations to follow?

We need to change how we look at energy.

We need to find an energy source that will stop the degradation of our environment and provide ample energy necessary to support the economic development of all the people of the earth as we move into the next century.

The most serious problems of the economy and the environment have been building for many years, with deep-seated causes ingrained into the pattern of our lives. Human beings have a strong resistance to change; therefore, most proposals that could actually solve the problems are rejected because they are too difficult, will take too long to achieve results, or are too costly. A politician is reluctant to pursue an idea that will not be supported by the people since his or her political life and job depend on keeping the constituency happy, at least until the next election.

So today the solutions offered by governments only address the symptoms of the disease affecting the economy and environment. After countless government studies, temporary cuts in expenditures, and billions of dollars spent on research programs, the disease is still there, eating away the vital organs of our country and our world.

To attack the disease will require a massive effort and changes that will be difficult to initiate. In order for people to accept major change, they must first be convinced that the change will bring improvement to their lives in equal measure to the anxiety the change will cause. They must also see that the change is something that is shared and not directed at selected individuals only.

Investment in the future was an essential part of the foundation built by our ancestors to assure our future. But in the modern world of sound bites, quick profits, immediate results, and instant gratification, we have forgotten many of the lessons of the past. We only need to look around us to see institutions and structures that are the result of the investment made by our predecessors. Solving the huge problems we now face will require a change from the concept of instant gratification to an investment in the future that will provide long-term, lasting benefits for us and the generations that follow.

Many of the problems, though staggering in their proportions and complexity, can be traced to a common cause — energy that is no longer cheap and at the same time is a major cause of pollution in our environment. The solution is so simple in concept it is hard to imagine why it has not been implemented. We must develop a new energy system that provides abundant, low-cost, nonpolluting energy available for all humanity. A solution simple in concept, but so difficult to achieve. Without it, progress has been stifled for two decades, and even today there is no serious long-range energy program in this country. Without affordable energy, the underdeveloped nations look into a hopeless future of poverty and starvation.

The future of mankind is dependent on abundant, low-cost energy that will not destroy our world. There is only one known source for that energy — solar power satellites. Yes—energy from the sun collected as it streams past the earth by giant satellites sitting in the silence of space, covered in a mantle of silky black solar cells, intercepting the life-giving rays and sending the energy to the earth. A gift of life to humanity waiting for us to have the courage to reach up and accept its abundance and promise of hope for a world drifting towards chaos.

Why is this — these huge satellites in space — a solution? We already have solar energy on the earth and it works. Why can’t we just build more solar plants on earth? Wouldn’t space-based solar power be prohibitively expensive? Isn’t there some other solution for our energy needs?

In order to answer those questions we need to have criteria with which to evaluate the potential solutions.

The first criterion for a major new energy source is that it must be nondepletable. All of our current fossil fuel and nuclear energy power plants use the earth’s resources at a prodigious rate, and these resources will be gone sometime in the not-too-distant future. The world demand for energy is becoming so great we cannot supply it with our finite stored natural resources.

The second criterion is low cost. If the cost is not low, a new source will not be developed and the energy will not be used. This does not necessarily mean it has to be low cost in the beginning if we are willing to make an investment in the future, but it must be low cost over the long term.

The third criterion is it must be environmentally clean. We can no longer continue to pollute our world without regard to the future. We must stop the damage and start to heal the earth.

The fourth criterion is it must be available to everyone. We can no longer deny energy to the emerging nations of the earth and expect to live in peace. Eventually, abundant energy must be made available to everyone on earth. This means it must be a vast source.

The fifth and last criterion is it must be in a useable form; otherwise, it will be of little help to us.

None of the energy sources in use today can satisfy these five simple but essential criteria. They all fall short in some way. Fossil fuels are being depleted and they also add to the pollution of the earth. Nuclear power uses a depletable resource and also leaves in its wake toxic nuclear waste. Hydroelectric power is generated by a wonderful renewable source, but there are very few rivers left in the world to dam and there is growing concern over the impact dams have on the fish population. Terrestrial solar power can come close, but it will always be too costly for massive, wide-spread use because of the intermittent nature of sunlight on the earth. Even as the cost of solar cells comes down, terrestrial solar power retains some inherent problems. The sun goes down at night, clouds occasionally block the sun, and the atmosphere filters out some of the energy. As a result, terrestrial solar systems must be greatly oversized and have additional energy storage systems if they are to provide continuous energy. This is not the case when we go to space to collect solar power.

The other hope held out over the years is nuclear fusion. For the past 45 years, it has been touted as the energy source of the future that is “only 20 years away.” Tens of billions of dollars have been spent on research, and nuclear fusion is now farther in the future than ever before even though it is still being heavily funded.

Only solar power satellites can meet all the criteria. What are they and why can they meet the criteria that others fail?

If we were in space looking at a solar power satellite we would see a vast, flat rectangular plane of blue-black solar cells spreading over ten square kilometers of space. Its frame, a spidery web of graceful triangular trusses, is capped at one end with what appears to be a head on a short slender neck. The neck is a swivel to give the head, a circular transmitting antenna, the freedom to move. This giant monolith shimmers in the brilliant sunlight as it circles the world 22,300 miles above the equator in geosynchronous orbit, far from the earth’s shadow. The satellite’s exposure to sunlight will be eclipsed for only a few short hours each year as it passes through the shadows of the spring and fall equinoxes. The energy gathered by the solar cells on the satellite is five times as much as could be collected on earth.

Sun Power Global Solution Solar Power Satellite

The magic of this immense, stark machine circling the globe is the silent and invisible beam of energy flowing from its head toward a single spot on the earth far below. An energy beam containing a billion watts of radio-frequency energy, enough to supply electricity to a city of a million people.

The beam’s destination is an oval, several kilometers across, made of rows and rows of greenhouses covered with sloping glass roofs. The glass in the greenhouse roofs contains a special magic of its own. While allowing light to pass through, antenna elements in the glass capture the energy of the beam. In an instant, the beam is converted from radio frequency energy to domesticated electricity, which is plugged into existing power grids and sent to power our lives.

The receiving antenna, or rectenna, could be much simpler, but building the antenna into the roofs of greenhouses adds elegance to the design. With the greenhouses, arid land becomes productive and producing land can have its output multiplied many times. Land required for the antennas is not lost but rather utilized to feed people.

So the power plant in space, fed with the energy of the sun, delivers its power to the people of the earth.

Is it nondepletable? Its source is the sun for as long as it shines.

Is it low cost? It has the potential of providing energy at costs as low as hydroelectric dams after it is fully developed. Solar power satellites are like hydroelectric dams. Instead of damming the waters of a river they dam the sunlight that is streaming past the earth and deliver it as useful energy to the earth. There is no cost for the sunshine, just as there is no cost for the waters that flow in our rivers. The cost of the energy is dependent on the capital cost of the satellites and the cost of maintenance. Because of the benign environment of space and lack of gravity, the satellites can be very light and built to last for many decades. They will produce five times as much electricity as an earth-based solar power plant, and the wireless energy transmission will be about 65% to 70% efficient. The key to low cost will be achieving low-cost space transportation. The technology for building completely reusable launch vehicles has been demonstrated, and when the public mandate to launch solar power satellites is established, that will provide the economic justification for their development. The potential for low-cost energy is one of the satellite’s major benefits.

Is it environmentally clean? That is perhaps the greatest benefit of solar power satellites. There are no pollution products associated with the energy it generates, and only the useful energy comes to the earth. It will allow our environment to heal.

Is it available to everyone? By its very nature it will be able to make energy available to all people of the earth. The satellites can be placed all the way around the world. Geosynchronous orbit is 165,000 miles around. There is room for nearly unlimited energy-generating capacity. Finally, is it in a form that is widely usable? The energy is delivered to the earth as electricity — the most useful form of energy known to mankind.

The possibilities of solar power satellites dwarf the amazing developments of the twentieth century —if we have the courage to make it happen. By going to space to gather solar energy, we can have unlimited electric power that will cost less than two cents a kilowatt hour through the twenty-first century. Today the lowest cost electricity — about three cents a kilowatt hour — is in areas that have hydroelectric dams. Much of the nation pays in the order of 10 cents a kilowatt hour — and even more in some areas.

If we continue on our current course, we will experience energy costs in excess of 70 cents a kilowatt hour before the middle of the next century. The cost of doing nothing will be staggering to every individual on earth. Our atmosphere will be choked with carbon dioxide, and nuclear waste will accumulate as a ticking time bomb. Our economy and standard of living will continue to decay, and the damage to our fragile earth will surely be fatal to human life.

We can stop the destructive pollution of our atmosphere and bring dynamic economic growth for ourselves, our children, and the underdeveloped nations of the world.

All we have to do is bravely face the needs of our children in the new millennium and demand a new source of energy for the world. I offer the solar power satellite as the logical and only solution for the future of mankind.

Sun Power:      Chapter 2     Table of Contents


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