13 April 2001
The Honorable Richard Cheney
Vice President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20501
Dear Vice President Cheney,
Congratulations on your selection as the head of the effort to help this nation construct a more rational and effective energy policy. Your selection on 29 January may have been directed at the near-term problems precipitated by the energy crisis in California, but I know you recognize this topic as one that is central to the long-term economic health of the country.
Past administrations have taken a wide variety of attitudes about our nations need for sustainable electrical power, from benign neglect to focused advocacy. The national effort in the 1950s and 1960s to promote nuclear power was largely successful, but more recent events have cooled the publics enthusiasm. Even if all of the issues associated with economics, plant safety and waste disposal were successfully addressed, nuclear plants still would contribute to heat pollution. Fusion power, even if proved feasible and economical, would face these same hurdles.
Conventional renewable sources of power also face limitations. Wind, geothermal and ground-based solar power plants have location and economic issues that will probably prevent them from being a large part of the complete answer. Our hydroelectric resources have been largely tapped and there are even some groups encouraging the government to tear down some dams because of their environmental impact.
I believe we can take the challenge forced on us by the looming energy crisis and turn it into a very positive experience for our society, while promoting growth, technology, innovation, and private enterprise. However, it will require boldness and inspired leadership qualities that we have shown many times in the past.
Gerald ONeill, a Princeton professor of physics who died in 1992, first surfaced the idea of orbital solar power stations over 30 years ago. His book, The High Frontier, presented the science, the economics, and the business aspects of putting large power stations in medium or high Earth orbit using resources largely collected from the Moon. While the idea may sound like science fiction, the concept is sound and the technology largely exists. It is the economics and willingness to proceed that are the larger issues.
The benefits of such a project, if feasible, are many. It would be non-polluting, it would use an almost-infinitely renewable resource (the Sun), it would create whole new American industries and businesses, it would be a source of revenue through sales of energy to other countries, it would reinvigorate our space program and, more importantly, reinvigorate our image of ourselves as the worlds innovators and entrepreneurs. Other countries view us in a much poorer light than we view ourselves; we need something to recapture the imagination of the world.
Most importantly, it could be done largely through the resources of private companies and investors forming an energy consortium to tackle the project. I believe a government-led program headed up by NASA would not be successful. However, the focusing effort would have to come through our government, offering the vision, the commitment of government resources (such as the shuttle and the International Space Station), the commitment of being a paying customer if power could be delivered for a certain price, and the regulatory and tax changes necessary to make the venture affordable in the near term and profitable in the long term.
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