Space Solar Power: the No Case

Proposals for Solar Power Satellites have been around for decades. During the energy crisis of the70’s they received considerable attention leading to a major DOE study. Interest waned in the 80’s as oil prices came down and the realities of the shuttle’s performance became apparent.

SPS are once again generating interest due to the recent high price for oil, concerns about Global Warming and various wars in oil regions.

Now, I’m not against SPS but am lukewarm towards them. I certainly do not believe it would be a worthwhile expenditure of public money. I have two main concerns.

Firstly they are far out of our league. The largest object ever constructed in Space is the International Space Station, and that is behind schedule and over budget. Its not even completed yet. Solar Power Satellites are several orders of magnitude beyond the ISS. Any estimate on completion time, costs etc are just fantasy.

Also there’s the big problem of launch costs. They are far too high, unless that issue is solved SPS, regular interplanetary flights etc. are just not going to happen. If people really want to spend money on break through space technology thats the area that needs attention.

What about the worlds energy requirements? Many believe terrestrial renewable energy is the go. However because of their intermittent nature wind, solar etc can not replace base load power stations . Now, theres plenty of coal and gas available but concerns about carbon emissions means fossil fuels are not popular. However there is an alternative, theres an energy source thats carbon free, safe and can provide all the energy we need. Nuclear power.

People usually give me three objections to nuclear power:

  1. Safety. Chernobyl was certainly a disaster, that was due to poorly trained workers and a stupidly designed reactor- it didn’t even have a containment building! Yet even with that disaster as of 2005 the death count was 56. Contrast that with the hundreds of reactors that have been built, a couple of hundred of which on sea vessels which have occasionally sunk. In total there has been over 12000 years of experience in nuclear power operation. That tells me as long as the technicians are properly trained and the reactors are designed to be idiot proof I shouldn’t be too worried.

  2. Nuclear waste. Nuclear power plants require a small fraction of the fuel mass to a comparable coal plant. The United States has decided to treat spent fuel rods as waste and deposit them in Yucca Mountain. Why I’m not sure, those spent rods have had only a small fraction of their energy extracted. They can be recycled reducing the volume. Thats what the French and Japanese are already doing. Breeder reactors can consume the fuel rods until a small quanity is left. The final waste can be buried underground which is where it came from in the first place. After about 400 years it would have decayed to a similar level of radioactivity as uranium. But is it really waste? It will still be giving of energy for decades, so why not use it? My suggestion is to use it to power ion-drive deep space probes.

  3. Nuclear proliferation. This is a real concern of mine. I expect to see a city nuked in my life time. However I’m less sure of any direct link between nuclear power stations and nuclear bomb manufacture. The nations that have the bomb developed their nuclear power stations after they built their weapons so I can’t see any direct link. Theres a real concern that widespread use of nuclear technology will lead to more nuclear weapons but thats an issue we have to deal with anyway. Besides do you really think SPS don’t have military potential? They can power a star warriors wildest dream.

Now the SPS proponents want President Obama to spend real money on SPS. How about the Integral Fast Reactor instead? Such reactors are even safer then conventional reactors and can consume spent fuel rods from other reactors. As well common uranium U-238 can be used providing virtually limitless energy.. Also the reprocessing and waste management is done on site and they can burn up plutonium making them very proliferation resistant. The United States was three years from completion of a IFR when President Clinton canceled the program. Perhaps the new President can bring some Change to that matter.

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16 Responses to “Space Solar Power: the No Case”


  1. 1 Joe Strout January 20, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Ralph makes reasonable points about modern, safer and cleaner nuclear power technology. I think those should be pursued as well. But clean energy production is probably the greatest problem facing humanity at this point in history, and it deserves more than a single line of attack. We should be building breeder reactors, large-scale power storage systems (to smooth out terrestrial solar and wind power), and researching a variety of potential game-changers such as polywell fusion and SPS.With regard to the specific objections to SPS: first, it’s probably unfair to use the ISS as a model for any large orbital construction project. That is only an example of how multinational government-run programs can turn out. There are many better ways to approach it, such as fixed-cost commercial contracts or prizes to spur entirely commercial development.Second, the main reason launch costs are so high is that we do it so rarely. If building SPS became a national priority, and we started launching materials and crew on a weekly or daily basis, the costs would drop dramatically — both because of economies of scale in the existing technologies, and because competition for that launch market would drive innovation.

  2. 2 Lobo7922 January 20, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    I agree with Joe in almost everything, the US have to try several strategies, because no single strategy will give the amount of energy that they will need in the future.But I think there is a better way to make lifting to space cheaper, and that is the Space Elevator, since graphene and carbon nanotubes are becoming better and cheaper to produce I think that the US government will do a big deal if they fund graphene and nanotube research.

  3. 3 Ralph Buttigieg January 21, 2009 at 8:49 am

    G’day,In writing my article I took the position of a person trying to decide were (if any) public money should be spent to provide a secure energy future. Fusion, Space Elevators, SPS, large scale power storage systems etc would be great if we had them. Unfortunately we don’t. We do have nuclear power and its clean. Taking nukes a step further with breeders seems a sensible evolutionary step to me with some history behind them.. Solar Power Satellites are just power point presentations.

  4. 4 Dan Wylie-Sears January 21, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    You don’t need actual nuclear bombs to have (in effect) nuclear proliferation. A truckload of high-level nuclear waste would make dirty bombs to contaminate enough area to cost more than the difference in price between nuclear and SPS.In the short term it should be terrestrial renewable energy, and then either SPS or fusion within fifty years. Exponential growth eats resources faster than people usually acknowledge when arguing for their favorite source of energy. There aren’t enough fissionables in the ground to power fifty years of robust growth, if my old geology textbook is correct. And there’s nowhere near being plenty of gas, unless the geology textbook was off by orders of magnitude. But there is enough energy coming out of the sun that we’ll run out of something else first.The intermittent output of photovoltaic and wind is not a major problem. There are lots of storage systems that are orders of magnitude cheaper than batteries. Wind blows at different times in different places, so some of the variability would average out if there were enough grid capacity to move the electricity around. Other renewable sources such as waves and tides average out a little more of it. Some energy use can be moved to whatever time of day the power is cheapest. But the clincher is that solar is not synonymous with photovoltaic. Solar thermal power provides round-the-clock output by storing heat in the ground (in the case of convection towers) or in heated working fluid (oil or molten salt) in the case of a mirror array that drives a steam turbine — and it’s probably cheaper than photovoltaic anyway.You don’t need space elevators (or electromagnetic mass drivers capable of launching at escape velocity, or any of the other hypothetical launch systems) to have SPS be affordable. You just need to develop infrastructure in space using lunar or near-earth-asteroid materials, so that you stop paying the rocket equation. What makes launch expensive is that you have to lift the rocket fuel to lift the rocket fuel to lift the payload, so the amount of fuel you need increases exponentially with how much total acceleration you need to exert.

  5. 5 Ralph Buttigieg January 22, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    G’day,The best thing to do with high level waste is to recycle it back into fuel. Thats what breeders like the IFR I mentioned do. It did all on site too so there was no problem with transportation. The small amount thats left is transported in just about indestructible containers under iron clad security, thats what happens now. How the stuff is supposed to be stolen I don’t know. But lets assume some terrorist does steal one, manages to open it with killing themselvesand make a dirty bomb. What you end up with is a localized contaminated area. Something that can be cleaned up or just blocked off. Most of the danger would be the panic generated.As to electricity storage, I’ll believe it when I see it. Doing it on the large scale required is still fantasy. At least at reasonable cost.taRalph

  6. 6 Dan Wylie-Sears January 23, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    CSP with thermal storage actually exists at pilot-project scale (up to 354 MW), whereas your link says IFR had its proof-of-concept research discontinued. So if the criterion is “believe it when I see it”, CSP is winning.As for iron-clad security at the necessary scale worldwide, by regimes at all levels of sophistication and corruption, I’ll believe that when I see zero illegal immigration across the US-Mexico border. A localized contaminated area in New York City (a place previously targeted by terrorists) would not be cheap to block off for the duration of cleanup.

  7. 7 Ralph Buttigieg January 24, 2009 at 11:19 am

    G’day,The IFR was originally the Experimental Breeder Reactor II, built in the 1960’s. Ran for 30 years before Clinton killed the IFR upgrade and closed it down. The Solar Thermal plants you mention store heat not electricity. Which is still far more expensive then nuclear generated electricity.As to waste transportation, well the IFR (even the EBR II )did reprocessing on site. However I certainly agree theres a need for international co-operation and agreement. In fact the President Obama can show some real leadership here. The USA operates the WIPP the worlds only currently operating high level nuclear waste desposal site. Its for the disposal of military waste, located in New Mexico it been operational since the 1990’s. Buries the stuff deep underground in salt. Allow it to be the USA’s waste site for commercial wastes as well, and offer it as a deposite site for other countries too. That would provide Hope and Change to the world.

  8. 8 Dan Wylie-Sears January 24, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    We don’t need to store electricity, beyond the small amounts we carry around in our cell phones and such. Those are insanely expensive per kilowatt-hour, but who cares when the number of kWh is small enough that the total cost of electricity for your cell phone is negligible.What we do need is baseline electric output, and we need a repertoire of energy sources that can be applied worldwide.CSP may or may not be significantly more expensive than nuclear, depending whose numbers you believe. The site I linked above says 13-17 cents per kWh for existing solar in the southwestern US, and this site says 12-17 cents per kWh total lifetime costs for nuclear. My guess is that CSP really is somewhat more expensive than nuclear, at least for a few years, but that it is affordable.Shipping nuclear waste from China sounds like a recipe for getting it shipped to New York by terrorists. If the Chinese business model involves poisoning their own children’s milk for a few cents of extra profit, someone in the system will be corrupt enough to sell radioactive material to the next Saudi billionaire to seek his fifteen minutes of fame. Or if not China, then maybe Somalia or Myanmar. The entire world needs energy, after all, and if they don’t use the technology the rich countries develop, we’ll be breathing their coal fumes. I would rather have solar and wind in those countries, and we can make it their cheapest option.

  9. 9 John Routledge January 24, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    My main objection to the ‘no’ case is the “Team America World Police!” attitude. You assume that cheap safe power is only something that people in America and nations like it need/deserve. You give no consideration to how well such reactors will fare in the hands of corrupt or plain stupid management. That cannot be engineered away. Nor can the reality that nations can go from sanity to insanity in less than ten years. My second objection would be that you ignore the safety issues of fuel processing. Pebblebeds are fundamentally safe. But the same argument cannot be made for the purely chemical factory that makes the fuel, and possibly reprocesses it. We’ve been handling oil for how long? And oil refineries still blow up due to accidents. That cannot be solved by improving ‘car/nuke’ safety.The ISS was designed to be dependent on the shuttle; to give the heavily flawed white elephant a reason to exist. The shuttle, amongst other things, is the most expensive and unreliable launch system in space history. Any comparison with the ISS is inaccurate.You are correct that cost to orbit is a major issue, and Alex was wrong to ignore it. But there are at least a dozen different ways of getting into space that would be cheaper. NASA’s track record in this area is more a reflection of their managerial incompetence rather than engineering difficulty.

  10. 10 Dan Wylie-Sears January 27, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Here's a study comparing various possible energy sources. It's focused on the near term, so it doesn't consider SPS or breeder reactors. The relevant conclusions are that terrestrial renewables are adequate for the time being, and that storage is not an overwhelming problem for them.http://www.rsc.org/delivery/_ArticleLinking/DisplayHTMLArticleforfree.cfm?JournalCode=EE&Year=2009&ManuscriptID=b809990c&Iss=Advance_Article

  11. 11 Anonymous February 9, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    Hi,yes,Solar Power Satellites are the way to go,we can make them using material from the Moon.A small mining operation would launch the Lunar material using an electro- magnetic catapult into orbit,then the silicon would be extracted and made into photovoltaic cells and placed into geosynchronous orbit and the dirt-cheap,pollution-free energy could be beamed to every country on Earth,please see Space Power Association.org.Cordially,jfhadden@canada.com

  12. 12 Al Globus February 11, 2009 at 6:56 am

    There are two arguments here:1. Space Solar Power (SSP) is too hard.2. Nuclear power is safe.I don’t buy either. 1. SSP is definitely hard. Very hard. But the payoff is enormous — depose King Oil and supply humanity with all the energy we could possibly want for a few billion years. The payoff is thousands of times greater that what we’ll could possibly get from the space station. SSP is more than worth the effort and risk. America has never been a timid nation, and I don’t think now is the time to start.2. A nuclear powered America is, from al Qaeda’s point of view, a target-rich America. Opportunities of city-killing attacks will be everywhere. The fuel, the waste, the power plants themselves. If you want to make Osama bin Laden very, very happy, take the nuclear path.For everything you could possibly want to know about SSP, see http://www.nss.org/ssp which includes a mother lode of full-text technical papers.For a detailed rebuttal to one of the strongest technical attacks on SSP, see http://space.alglobus.net/papers/FetterResponse.html

  13. 13 Dan Wylie-Sears February 13, 2009 at 4:47 am

    Those pages seem to pretend that concentrating solar power (CSP, aka solar thermal power) doesn’t exist. Overnight storage is built in, because a thermos is cheaper than a turbine twice as big that you have to shut down and start up every day. Storage can reasonably be provided for day-to-day variation in cloudiness.Variability in wind and PV power is commonly overstated. We’re going to have to have a grid anyway unless we go for a rectenna on every rooftop, and once you put the electricity in the grid, a lot of the variability averages out. We still need some baseline load, but CSP well may stay cheaper than PV anyway.I’m a space buff. I think we need to move into space because all the resources are there, because the earth can’t support a hundred billion people which we’ll reach eventually, and because we’re less likely to nuke ourselves into extinction if we’re scattered across the solar system. I would like to see it work out in my lifetime with SSP, but I don’t see SSP beating ground-based renewables until the infrastructure is there in space. Space will wait until something else breaks the chicken-and-egg blockage, or until we exceed the capacity of ground-based renewables.

  14. 14 Ralph Buttigieg February 14, 2009 at 2:56 am

    G’day,Yes Al, SPS is hard very hard and therefore not cheap. SPS cost estimates are a fantasy. I want clean non-OPEC energy sources too, but I have to be realistic. Nukes are here today, SPS are not and I’m doubtful they will ever be or that they will ever be affordable. . If I had money to spend on advanced energy technology advanced reactors that reduce the risks you mentioned , not SPS, make more sense. As to Mr Bin Laden, what concerns me is some oil rich Muslim giving him a real nuke bomb, not that he would crash jets into a nuclear plant. Nuclear power can held cut of the cash flow to OPEC especially if they can be used to produced synthetic fuels such as methanol or if electric cars take off.taRalph

  15. 15 Dan Wylie-Sears February 14, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    The oil heirs already have plenty of money to buy whatever the arms traffickers have in stock, and that’s more likely to include nuclear weapons if everyone from Venezuela to Laos is running on nuclear power.

  16. 16 Marsium May 5, 2009 at 8:23 am

    Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) has not been research enough to draw any conclusions at this point. There may be options have have not even been considered yet concerning SBSP architecture and operations. Additional research is needed and it makes sense to start conducting that research now rather than waiting until the oil stops flowing. Such research need not cost lots of money and need not compete for research in other energy possibilities.


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