There’s no scarcity of solar energy…closer to the sun. The Space Development Steering Committee (SDSC), which includes such influential figures as NASA astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Edgar Mitchell, and Peter Garretson, the Chief of the Future Science and Technological Exploration Branch of the US Air Force, have recently become very vocal about advocating the development of space-based solar power collectors.
A study conducted by Air Force Research Lab veteran J. Michael Snead on behalf of the organization has convinced its members that space-solar is the only way to avoid a potential existential disaster by meeting humanity’s energy needs into the 21st Century and beyond.
I interviewed SDSC founder Howard Bloom via e-mail. Aside from his role in the organization, Bloom is the author of such popular and influential books as The Lucifer Principle and Global Brain.
h+: This idea of putting solar panels in space was in circulation during the 1970s. And it probably never happened because of expense. What’s happening now that makes you optimistic that we can do this?
HOWARD BLOOM: In 1970, the price of oil was $3 a barrel. On June 26, 2008, it went up to $140 a barrel. Today, it’s down to a mere $60 a barrel. Sixty dollars a barrel. Think about it. That’s 20 times the price in 1970. And guess what? It will go back to $140 again. And beyond.
In 1973, OPEC showed us why we needed to get off our oil addiction. It cut off our supply. We waited hours in mile-long lines for gas. Richard Nixon, of all people, called for the moral equivalent of war, a full-out crusade for energy independence. Jimmy Carter picked up the energy lance and ran with it. Then came the false morning in America under Ronald Reagan, who cut the funding Carter and Nixon had put into research and development of alternative technologies like solar and wind. And we, stupid sheep that we are, went along with him on the high ride to another oil pig-out.
This time I think the American public knows that we can’t make that mistake again.
Meanwhile James Michael Snead, of The Space Development Steering Committee, is about to finish a ten-month study of our oil future. Snead is a 25-year-veteran of the Air Force Research Lab. He is a meticulous engineer, and he knows his stuff. What does his study reveal? That even if we use every alternative energy source — ground-based solar, wind, geothermal, and wave power; even if we use every form of traditional nasty energy — shale oil, clean coal, dirty coal, and natural gas; and even if we build between 16,000 and 35,000 nuclear plants (versus the current world total of 600), we will run out of energy by 2100. Snead wants me to let you know that we will actually run out well before 2100.
So we need the normal alternative fuels — ground solar, wind, and all the rest. We need them urgently. We may also need the carbon-coughing non-renewable energy sources. Not to mention nuclear. The whole package will cost us trillions. But despite the expense they entail, all these will only boost us for roughly 20 years. Then we will slowly slide into an energy gulch. Again.
Meanwhile, you asked another very good question. What’s changed technologically since Peter Glazer first gave us his space solar power visions in 1968? Everything. We went to the moon the year Glazer first gave us the space solar power concept. Since then, we’ve developed an entire industry based on space solar power. We just don’t know it. We have a $125 billion a year satellite business beaming radio waves, television waves, and geopositioning information down to earth. Where have the 5,000 or so satellites launched since the beginning of the space era gotten their power? The sun… using solar panels.
What else do we have today that we didn’t have in 1968? Back then solar panels were only able to convert roughly five percent of the solar energy that they snagged into energy. Today, new solar panels in the lab are claiming efficiencies of 40%. And that figure will continue to rise as we build our space solar power infrastructure.
Meanwhile, we’ve developed dozens if not hundreds of rocket-types capable of carrying cargo into space. America has them. The Europeans have them. The Russians have them. The Chinese have them. And even India — the low-cost outsourcer of choice for low-priced everything — has them. Our obstacle? In the US, we still make these rockets by hand one at a time. Or that’s my layman’s understanding. But what would happen if we mass-produced them, the way the Syrians are now mass-producing short- and medium-range missiles? The price would come down.
Then there are the rockets we’ve got and are about to throw away like the shuttle rockets — the ones that have carried hundreds of tons of cargo into space. Why throw those rocket designs and manufacturing facilities away? Why retire the teams that make them? Why not amortize the cost of their research and development by building more of them? Why not take advantage of economies of scale to drive their costs per launch down? And why not use them to build an infrastructure in space?
h+: I wonder about the claim that we will run out of all energy resources during this century, even the natural kind. Aren’t we going to invent better technologies for collecting wind, solar and hydro? What about nuclear? Or the potential for fusion? Wouldn’t making these technologies ever safer, cheaper — maybe even using some form of self-replication — be cheaper than putting big heavy material up into space?
HB: Mike Snead can answer this better than I can. He’s used generous figures about the amounts of energy terrestrial sources like ground solar and wind would produce. And he’s used very conservative figures about what our energy needs will be. But you’re right. Folks like Ray Kurzweil swear that nanotechnologies and other breakthroughs will produce nearly god-like increases in the amount of energy we can squeeze from sunlight falling on the surface of the earth.
I was a big booster of ground solar in its early days. With one of the members of Styx, I put together the first series of pro-solar public service radio ads in 1981. So I like ground solar. But what seems more important to me is this: to put together big-scale ground solar projects, we will have to destroy ecosystems. Many of the ground solar mega-plans I’ve seen require covering most of the Mojave Desert with solar panels or with solar-concentrating mirrors.
Goodbye to the lizards and to the plants that are unique to that environment. Goodbye to biodiversity and delights for the eye. More crucial — even if you put on eco-blinders, there is only so much real estate on earth you can cover with solar collectors. The sheer land is going to run out. The same is true of coal, oil, natural gas, geothermal, and even useable real estate for wind. All of them are finite. We need a source that is infinite. The only two nearly infinite sources I know of are fusion — which doesn’t yet exist and which has continued to elude us for 60 years — and solar power from space.
One more detail. Even if we save energy like misers, we will have to spend trillions to increase our energy output to satisfy our own needs and to elevate the living standard of the Third World to the level you and I enjoy today. And what will we get for it? Frankly, eyesores with no additional value. There are no multiple uses — no additive benefits for miles and miles of solar panels and hills studded with windmills. What we’ll get out of a vigorous space solar power program is radically different. We’ll get an infrastructure in a territory where resources are stunning. The moon is an immense source of raw materials for concrete, steel, glass, and semi-conductors. Some call it The Earth’s Eighth Continent. Lifting resources from the Moon’s surface is inexpensive. The Moon’s gravity is one-sixth of ours here on earth. What’s more, asteroids are massive sources of nickel, titanium, and platinum. And comets are mobile fuel stations made of the liquid oxygen and hydrogen we use to propel space ships.
What in the world would we do with unending amounts of building materials in space? Those are the raw materials from which we can build second and third generation space solar power satellites. And they’re the raw materials from which we can build huge rotating colonies that can house 10,000 humans or more. Space is real estate. It’s real estate in the sun. Every space solar power satellite we build is a part of the infrastructure of a new economy. It’s a way station on the way to the stars.
And not just a way station for us. It’s a way station for life, for ecosystems, and for the future of the grand experiment of DNA and cells, an experiment in need of new lands to bio-form, new land — and skies — to green.
h+: I think the new paradigm with earthbound solar collectors (and with wind), is that it would be distributed. You wouldn’t so much be building huge solar farms, you’d have solar collectors pasted everywhere – (and I believe thin, sheet-like solar power collectors have already been developed…correct me if I’m wrong).
HB: Like you, RU, I’m a personal fan of distributed power systems. I suspect that, like the Internet, a highly parallel distributed system with power generation in your home would be more blackout-proof than centralized systems. Personal power generators would also increase our sense of control over our lives.
Every space solar power satellite we build is a part of the infrastructure of a new economy. It’s a way station on the way to the stars.
When I first got involved in space solar power, I asked if this power could be distributed. That is, could the city of Milwaukee have its own space solar power satellite? Could the kids in Buffalo, NY (my home town) chip in ten dollars each — the way we did when I was a kid to build our first big-league sports team, the Buffalo Bills? And could we use our pooled greenbacks to get our own satellite? The answer I got was yes.
Then there’s distributing the power. Space solar power can be beamed down to remote locations, electrifying distant villages in Asia and Africa that are very hard and very expensive to reach by the traditional wiring systems we have in North America.
But my suspicion — from James Michael Snead’s Space Development Steering Committee study — is that it would be very difficult to electrify your house, heat it, charge your car, and power your office with only solar panels on your roof and a windmill above your chimney.
h+: I’m glad to see people dreaming about space colonization again. I’ve heard rumors that there’s a resurgence of interest in these ideas at NASA. Can you confirm or comment on this?
HB: Now that the bush mind-freeze is ending, I hear new rumors about the thaw at NASA weekly. Dreams that have been unthinkable for eight years are reviving. The presidential election is tomorrow as I type this. We’ll see what impact the mix of political change and economic crash has on our ability to fantasize and to make those fantasies come true. The ability to turn fantasy into reality is at the heart of the human evolutionary process and at the cutting edge of nature’s techniques for creation. Its revival — whether here, in China or in India — is a necessity.
The bottom line is this. We have to bring space to life by bringing life to space. Economies go through mega-crashes roughly once every 70 years. It’s been that way since the tulipmania crash of roughly 1637. What lifts economies from those massive falls? New frontiers, new resources, new technologies; new ways to turn toxic wastes into energy and new techniques that turn garbage into gold. We evolved as humans by turning hostile environments to advantage. We evolved as humans by finding ways to live on the edges of Ice Age glaciers and on the fringes of deserts. We evolved by outfoxing 60 freezes and 18 periods of massive global warming. Today we have a new frontier whose potential is larger than any hostile horizon we’ve ever conquered before. It’s a new frontier not just for human beings but also for entire ecosystems — for meshes of living beings from bacteria and algae to trees, cats, and puppies. It’s a massive niche waiting to be greened. And we are the only beings on this planet that can reach it. We are the only ones who can green it. That vast new landscape hangs above our head.