Sun Power: The Global Solution

for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 8 for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 8

Sun Power

by Ralph Nansen

Copyright 1995 by Ralph Nansen, reproduced with permission

Chapter 8: Our Situation Today

I have discussed the challenge we face as we prepare to enter the twenty-first century. I have told you about the background of solar power satellites and explored our energy heritage. I have reviewed the impact of the 1973-74 energy crisis and what it has done to our country and the world. I have measured the capability of the known energy options against a set of criteria for the future and found there was only one source that has the potential to pass all the tests. So what is the next step? To answer that question it will be useful to look at the energy situation as it exists today.

The profile of United States energy use falls into two major energy segments. One is electric energy and the other the direct use of energy for heating and transportation. Nearly all of the latter is furnished by fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal. However, it is the electricity generation that is important to the future as we look to the development of new energy sources.

In recent years the use of electricity has expanded at about the same rate as the population has grown. The majority of the added capacity has been from coal. This has been accomplished by adding new plants, upgrading old plants, and increased utilization. At the same time nuclear energy has also contributed to some of the increased electrical generation, not from additional new plants, but from increased utilization by operating existing plants a greater percentage of the time. This increased utilization has peaked and net energy production will now decline as older plants are shut down and no new ones are built.

Sun Power Global Solution Electric Energy Consumption

Today, natural gas is the energy source being expanded by the utility industry to satisfy growing demand. Gas turbines are relatively cheap and can be purchased in small increments of capacity without a great deal of local environmental impact. Also, the price of natural gas is low at this time. The utility companies see it as a solution for the next few years, but it will not last indefinitely.

What about the future? There are warning signs. California has mandated that if an automobile manufacturer wants to sell new cars in California, starting in 1998 at least two percent of their vehicles must be emission free. This percentage increases with each passing year. For all practical purposes emission free means electrical power. Other states are considering similar legislation. The motivation behind this move is to reduce atmospheric pollution. However, it makes no sense at all to burn fossil fuels in a power plant to power electric vehicles with the intent of reducing atmospheric emissions. As a result there will be immense pressures to eliminate burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. Where will the energy come from to run electric vehicles? The requirement will start small, but it will grow. The amount of energy in the gasoline used to run automobiles is as much as all the electricity currently being generated. This means that electric power generation must double just to handle automobile travel without even considering growing demand from an expanding population or replacing the fossil fuel energy currently used for heating.

This is not the only sign of difficulties ahead. The electric utilities are facing an uncertain future when the industry will be deregulated. Competition will be allowed. A consumer will be able to buy power from the lowest cost supplier. Utilities that have high-cost generating facilities will be able to buy power from a lower cost producer and resell it to their customers. The threat of this kind of future is already causing a great deal of concern in the utilities. They are restructuring their organizations, downsizing their work forces, accumulating cash that would normally have been spent building new generating plants, and reducing their costs of operation, all in anticipation of a fiercely competitive future.

If what happened in the telephone and airline industries after deregulation is any indication, we can expect some major upheavals in the electric utilities business. What is likely is the industry will break up into three different kinds of organizations. One will be similar to most current utilities. They will have generating capacity and will distribute and sell the power to the consumer. Another type will become only distributors of power without having any generating capacity. They will buy power from the lowest cost producer. This is how many public utility districts operate today, but the options on where they can buy power will increase. Then there will be the energy supplier that only sells to other utilities in the distribution business. Bonneville Power Administration, for example, does not distribute power directly to consumers, but rather sells power to utilities. In the future they will be joined by major competitors in the business of making money from generating and selling power. The first major move in this direction is coming from industrial companies who are building power sources for their own use and selling the excess power. Many of these facilities use cogeneration, where electrical energy is a by-product of excess heat produced for other purposes. The results of deregulation are uncertain, but it is clear that the industry will be in turmoil for some time to come.

The situation today? There is a growing demand for electricity. The utility industry is depending on natural gas for the short term, with a growing awareness of the need to eliminate atmospheric emissions. The low price of natural gas is causing a large segment of the utility industry to turn away from considering any other source of energy because of the tremendous competitive pressure to maintain low energy cost in the short term. The inevitable long-range result will be price increases in natural gas as the demand rises for this finite resource. The utilities have no idea from where new emission-free energy will come, and they are uncertain of their business future. And the Department of Energy has no cohesive energy policy. As one senior DOE official told me recently, “If you review the charter of the Department of Energy and the functions they perform, the last thing you would conclude is that they work on energy programs.”

Foreign Nations Are Forging Ahead

During the 1970s the United States was the only nation seriously studying solar power satellites. However, a great deal of interest was stirred up in other countries. While I was the Boeing program manager a great number of people from all over the world came to find out what was happening. This included the news media as well as the technical community. The Japanese sent a whole television crew. The Australians did a TV special on solar power satellites.

One day Lucien Deschamps, a Frenchman, stopped by my office and we spent several hours discussing the concept. When he left I gave him copies of many of our illustrations of various aspects of the concept. I saw him again recently, and he asked if I remembered his visit and the information I gave him. Today he is leading the French efforts to develop the solar power satellite system through a series of progressively more ambitious steps. One of the French initiatives, with the support of the Japanese, is to install a wireless energy link on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. It would be from one ground location to another several kilometers away and would be the first continuously operating wireless energy transmission link in the world. France also has plans for space-to-space wireless power transmission tests.

Germany and other European countries are also conducting studies but have no national programs. The former Soviet Union was developing space technologies required for solar power satellites, such as large space structures. They did not have a centralized program, but their technology studies were quite comprehensive. This base still exists in Russia today, though they do not have the financial resources to develop the system. They could be a very effective partner to any country with the necessary capital and desire to develop the system.

India has expressed interest and requested help from the US Department of Energy. DOE told them they had looked at the system in the past, but had no interest in it. An acquaintance of mine from India who works for the United Nations told me the only hope for the developing nations to have enough energy in the future is solar power satellites.

The most significant activity today is occurring in Japan. They started with the “reference design” developed by Boeing for the DOE/NASA system definition studies. The reference design is the satellite configuration developed during the studies that was used to evaluate the concept of solar power satellites against other energy sources. With this solid base they have refined the concept using technology advances made over the years. Some of the advances have come from the US and some are being developed in Japan. One area of intense study is the radio frequency generators for the energy beam. The Boeing design used klystrons. The Japanese are concentrating on developing solid-state devices instead. Their large electronics industry gives them a sound base for this development. They now have an updated reference system definition, and as I mentioned earlier, conducted the first test of wireless energy transmission in space in February of 1993. This test successfully transmitted 800 watts of power from a mother ship to a daughter ship a short distance away. They plan a low-earth-orbit solar power satellite demonstration in the year 2000.

The recent launching of their new H-2 rocket gives Japan their own capability to launch relatively heavy payloads for developmental testing. Though it is not a reusable space transportation system and therefore not capable of launching hardware for an operational satellite, it is still a significant step forward. If Japan and Russia were to join forces with Japan furnishing the capital and electronic technology and the Russians supplying space transportation and space environment technology, they would become an extremely powerful competitor.

The pace of development may be slowed somewhat by Japan’s recent business recession, but they still have a stated goal of providing 30% of the global energy needs by the year 2040. They know that solar power satellites are the only way they will achieve that level of energy production and distribution. It is a frightening prospect for the United States.

What Has Happened in the United States?

During the years since the oil crisis of 1973-74 many ideas have been advanced and billions of dollars have been spent on research, but no permanent solution has emerged. Many politicians have taken the position that if we just ignored the problem, it will go away. But it won’t go away.

One of the reasons nothing has happened is because there is not an obvious, easy solution. All of the systems that received extensive funding through the years have either dropped by the wayside or are struggling to survive. When they are measured against the criteria for a future energy source, it is clear why they have not emerged as viable options. If their capabilities had been measured against a set of realistic criteria in the beginning their shortcomings would have been obvious. At that point an intelligent decision could have been made whether to continue development or not depending on comparison to the competing systems. Unfortunately this was not done. As a result, solar power satellites, the one energy source that can meet the criteria, were not developed.

There are several reasons for this. First, it is a high-technology space concept and does not fit the image that people have of an energy source. There are no smoking chimneys or imposing cooling towers or concrete buttresses holding back the water. Rather, it inspires the image of science fiction, rockets, astronauts, high-cost satellites, and unreliability. It is a completely foreign concept to people in the energy business who are used to dealing with labor unions representing coal-dust-covered miners emerging from black holes in the earth, free-wheeling drilling crews coming in from an offshore rig, acres of giant storage tanks around a smoking refinery, super-tankers wallowing across the oceans, and giant cooling towers wafting condensation into the sky.

Second, the system is only cost effective if the satellites are huge, with outputs over a 1,000 megawatts each. Associated with size is the requirement to develop the entire infrastructure to support launching, assembly in space, and maintenance. This means that the initial development bill is very high. And it all must be paid before the first kilowatt-hour of power is sold. It will take farsighted industry and government leadership and support by the people to commit to the massive effort required. That kind of commitment is not easy to make. It is beyond the resources of any one commercial company or even most nations to undertake, so it will either require government support for at least part of the development or a partnership of many companies or nations.

The third reason is the resistance of the currently established energy industry. Oil and coal companies do not want to see a competitive source developed that will eventually put them out of business. This is not true of all companies, as some consider themselves to be energy companies and are working to develop alternative technologies that will keep them in business as new energy sources are developed. However, most of the energy businesses in the United States (the largest industry we have) are not about to let a new energy source disrupt their fat, rich, comfortable world without a fight. They will not give up easily. They do not fight the issue in the open, but through their political lobbying base in Washington.

The fourth reason comes from an unexpected segment of our population, but it has been an effective obstacle of progress to date. A small segment of the scientific community sees solar power satellites as a high-technology engineering venture that will disrupt scientific investigation by drawing interest and funding away from scientific programs. These scientists often hold prestigious positions in the scientific community and in government, and their opinions can influence many people, particularly politicians. Some have made uninformed dogmatic statements about solar power satellites, such as “it is impossible to build anything that big in space” or “the cost will be a hundred times higher than estimated.” They follow in the footsteps of those who said “man will never fly.” Engineers, on the other hand, focus on the physical application of scientific principles. Ideally, science and engineering work in concert to produce new benefits to mankind, but regretably this doesn’t always happen.

In December of 1994 I attended a workshop titled “International Space Cooperation: Getting Serious About How,” which was sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Two of the five topics were “International Cooperation in Space Transportation” and “Solar Power to Earth.” The space transportation topic focused on the need to develop a low-cost transportation system, and the solar-power-to-earth topic focused on what was required to initiate a program for solar power satellites. Attendees at the workshop were senior government and business executives, scientists, and engineers. After the conference was over I wrote a letter to the 60 participants asking for support in developing a low-cost space transportation system and in establishing a program in the US government on solar power satellites to be the focal point for international cooperation.

The replies I received were very supportive, with one exception. The writer—a scientist—reflected the attitude of a small number of scientists opposed to the concept when he wrote: “I cannot concur with your finding that solar power satellites are now practical, if a low-cost space transportation system was available. Your definition of low cost would require a two order-of-magnitude reduction in launch and launch preparation costs. This is clearly not achievable in the near term, nor in the foreseeable future. Even a single order of magnitude reduction is not achievable. . . .”

It is interesting that the part of the system questioned by scientists is the area of cost, where they have the least amount of knowledge or experience. In 1981 the National Research Council (NRC) issued a report titled Electric Power From Orbit: A Critique of a Satellite Power System. The report by this prestigious group of scientists was given wide distribution and has often been used as justification for not spending any funds on developing solar power satellites. The critique was made from a scientific point of view and reached eight major conclusions, summarized in the following:

  • No development funds should be committed for a decade.
  • NASA and DOE should periodically review the system.
  • Solar power satellites are technically possible, although costly.
  • There are serious doubts about validity of cost estimates.
  • Solar power satellites are not competitive with other energy systems.
  • Size would strain US resources.
  • Questions of international legality and politics exist.
  • Development requires worldwide participation.

The critique centers around cost, the size and complexity of the program, and international politics. In the technical area, which is rightly their area of expertise, the scientists agreed it was feasible. The problem is when they criticized the program in the areas where they did not have any experience. For example, they questioned the solar cell cost estimates. Boeing and Rockwell International, the systems contractors who conducted the studies, estimated the cost of the cells based on manufacturing the cells in a production facility. This was an absolute requirement since each satellite would require billions of cells. This resulted in cell cost estimates well under a dollar a watt. The NRC scientists, on the other hand, only considered the cost of cells being manufactured for satellites in 1980 when they were being made in small quantities in research laboratories at a cost of over $1,000 a watt. The scientists simply multiplied those costs by the number of watts needed for a solar power satellite and arrived at astronomical numbers. Based on this kind of analysis their conclusion was that the costs were too high and work should be stopped. Today the solar cell industry manufactures over a hundred megawatts of cells per year and is approaching the estimates made by Boeing and Rockwell in 1980. The cost in 1995 is down to $2.50 to $5 per watt, with the industry projecting $1 a watt in the very near future.

The negative report by the NRC plus the opposition of the Carter Administration effectively stopped all further work. With solar power satellites out of the way, the Department of Energy could continue fusion research, breeder reactor research, and all of its other nuclear activities without the threat of a competing new energy source eliminating their funding. The solar power satellite program has not been able to recover from that devastating blow.