Space Power Chapter 4: Terrestrial Options

by G. Harry Stine

Copyright 1981 by G. Harry Stine
Reproduced with permission of the G. Harry Stine estate

Chapter 4: Terrestrial Options

Why even consider putting Solar Power satellites in the sky? Why not look for other terrestrial sources of energy instead?

There are two reasons for this.

The first reason revolves around the growing need for electrical power.

The second has to do with the consequences of getting our needed energy in space instead of on the Earth.

Let’s look at these reasons one at a time.

There has been much said and much written about our “energy shortage” and about our growing need for increasing amount of energy. The philosophical reasons for this were touched upon in the first chapter of this book. But what are the hard facts? What are the numbers?

You don’t have to depend upon data from the U.S. Department of Energy to get your numbers. And anybody can be an energy forecaster. The electrical energy requirements of the United States can be estimated with a very high degree of accuracy by finding out what the electrical consumption has been in the past and simply extrapolating it out into the future.

(There are some problems that arise in doing this, especially when we get out to the year 2025 and beyond. But this forecaster knows that. And this forecaster had discovered some interesting consequences that come about because of the growth of space power, especially in terms of what it really means to the U.S. electric energy requirements in the long haul. This is because the drive for space power will be “synergistic”—i.e.: it will develop some fascinating consequences as a result of its own accomplishments.)

Table I shows the U.S. production in gigawatt hours, capacity in gigawatts, the change in capacity over the preceeding 5-year period, and the percentage increase in capacity over that 5-year period from 1925 to 1975 based on actual data. It can’t be argued because it is recorded history.

(Production in gigawatt-hours. Capacities in gigawatts.)
Source: The World Almanac, 1946, 1962, 1970, 1976, & 1980 editions.

YearProductionUsed CapacityNew Capacity% Increase

The U.S. electrical energy usage is given in terms of gigawatt-hours per year. (A gigawatt is technical shorthand for a billion watts or a million kilowatts.) The U.S. electrical used capacity in gigawatts that produced this was determined by dividing the gigawatt-hours number by 8760, the number of hours in a year. This is the “used capacity” in gigawatts shown in the table.

The data sources used were the 1949, 1959, 1962, 1970, 1976, and 1980 editions of The World Almanac. Some additional data came from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. These references are available to anyone who has access to a public library. The older editions of The World AImanac were used in order to get data going back to 1925 to permit a true long-term look at electric energy consumption trends, especially as they were through the Great Depression and World War II, two periods that reflect energy consumption trends during periods of economic difficulty due to a depression as well as economic stimulation caused by general war.

Two items of interest surfaced during this research.

First of all, the current issues of The World Almanac printed since the U. S. Department of Energy became a reality do not contain electrical energy consumption data that go back earlier than 1971. This made some fascinating conjecture as to whether, and if so why, the federal bureaucracy might not want trend-indicating data available? Never mind: the data was available from other, earlier sources and was used.

Secondly, the trend of electrical energy consumption continued to increase even during the Great Depression, albeit at a slower rate. Even in the depths of the greatest world economic dislocation in this century, the U.S. electrical energy consumption increased. Basically, the rate of electrical energy consumption in the United States has been increasing at a long-term rate of 5% to 7% per year over the past fifty years.

Table II shows a projection to the year 2025 based on a trend of an average 5-year percentage increase of 25% in capacity.

(Assumed 5% annual increase in capacity)
(Capacities in gigawatts)

YearCapacityNew CapacityAnnual
New Capacity

The historical data over the fity-year time span between 1925 and 1975 showed this percentage rate increase to be reasonable, and this sort of reasonable extrapolation is the basis for many forecasts used by marketing people in industry and commerce as well as government forecasters and high-powered future-oriented think-tanks. One can assume any percentage increase one wants except zero or negative for several reasons. Firstly, there hasn’t been any indication of a reversal of trend over the past fifty years. And secondly and most importantly, because we can’t continue our civilization if we don’t increase our electrical energy capacity. There is one simple reason for this: there’s a new human being born in the United States every 9.5 seconds. That’s 380 new people per hour, 9,120 per day, or more than three million per year. They require heat, light, transportation, and other amenities that require energy. Most of this energy comes from electricity, the most convenient form of energy we’ve ever managed to harness.

There are two solutions to the continuing need for more and more energy: (a) zero-population growth, or (b) continual increase in electrical energy generating capacity.

The first is probably impossible to achieve over the next twenty-five year period, human beings being what they are. Wars don’t seem to do the trick, in spite of the fact that warfare now kills millions of people in a decade or less . . . and in a microsecond if thermonuclear weapons are used. Famine, disease, pestilence, and natural disasters don’t seem to make much of a dent in population growth, although epidemic disease once had the capability to do so for periods of up to a century. Witness the Black Death and the Plague in Europe. If anything, these factors have shown a stubborn tendency to cause the population growth rate to increase rather than to decrease. Malthus, that early-day advocate of “limits to growth,” has been proven wrong because he didn’t understand that the human mind, working with a knowledge of the universe, could reverse what appeared to be a natural trend. Even modern population control methods based on scientific knowledge don’t seem to be able to stem the tide of people doing what comes naturally. Neither widespread knowledge of the human reproductive cycle nor the infamous Pill really stemmed the tide of population growth. Demographers are ecstatic when a population growth rate trend even starts to level off, but they don’t have much to say when that curve continues to go up. The population growth trend curve has exhibited temporary “glitches,” inflections, and changes in slope, but it hasn’t shown any indication of leveling off, much less turning around or inflecting, when considered in the long term. The upshot of this is the fact that we simply can’t count on the miracle of zero population growth . . . not this century, at any rate.

In his book, “The Next 200 Years,” Dr. Herman Kahn forecasts the possibility that the population trend curve will inflect at a “cusp” in the next century. Dr. Kahn claims that what we’re now seeing is a rapid growth rate caused by technology that has permitted us to expand to more completely fill our ecological niche on Earth. The population trend may well turn around in the 21 st Century. There may be technological reasons for this aside from thermonuclear war, or it may be caused by an increasing number of people leaving the Earth to live in the solar system over the next 120 years.

If we can’t count on a decline in population to solve the problem, we must increase the energy supply.

Increasing the electrical energy generating capacity is difficult, expensive, necessary, and possible. It’sthe easierway out. It may not be the best way out, but it’s the easiest. Human beings will opt for it in spite of massive and seemingly overwhelming problems caused by such things as high cost, technical difficulty, potential environmental impacts, social consequences, rules, regulations, laws, propaganda, threats of force, and other political and ideological coercions by those who say they have “the welfare of society at heart” but who, in their hearts, really want to control people and make them do it their way by exercising control over energy.

One solution was not mentioned above because it isn’t a solution but suicide: shut down the nukes, close down the power plants, break up the big utilities, decentralize the power sources, and do all these things now. It’s no solution because we can’t do without the energy we’ve got now and we won’t do without it or cut it back.

Where are we going to get all this new electric generating capacity?

There really isn’t time to stop and study it to death—not when we’ll have to build enough new capacity in the 1980-1985 time period that equals the total U.S. capacity in 1938. We will have to continue building new capacity using tried and proven technology while we are developing new technology.

Beset as they are with problems, the current methods of generating electricity work and don’t need to be tested. So we’ll have to continue building new capacity using existing technology while we develop new technology.

We’ll continue to build electrical generating plants using the abundant coal reserves of the United States. (The Soviet Union has the world’s largest known coal reserves, followed by the People’s Republic of China as a close second in Asia. The U.S. has almost 30% of the known coal reserves in the world.) There are huge coal deposits in the western U.S., but they are the greatest distance away from the population and industrial centers where the energy is needed. There are also large coal deposits in the Appalachian Mountains and in the area of southern Illinois, southern Indiana, and western Kentucky. There is enough coal there to supply our energy needs for more than 200 years, which means that we’ll continue to build coal-fired electrical generating plants in the U.S until such time as the newer energy technologies can assume most of the baseload requirements. Therefore, we’ll have to continue to deal on an ever-increasing scale with the problems of the ecological consequences of strip mining and surface mining. We’ll have to face up to and deal with the fact that such massive combustion of coal releases radioactive carbon-14 into the Earth’s atmosphere, thus releasing far more radioactive material into the environment than has ever leaked from any nuclear electric plant.

We’ll continue to build generating plants that use petroleum products and natural gas as energy sources. However, it’s highly likely that they ’11 be built in decreasing numbers as the years go by because of the increasing problems of supply and the potential problems of resource allocation. But to handle daily peak loads, some oil-fired and gas-fired plants will have to be built because they can be brought on-line rapidly to handle demand and can thereafter be put on standby just as rapidly. Because of the problems of sulfur emissions from oil-fired plants, more gas-fired plants will be built in the future because, if proper combustion technology is used, the emissions from gas-fired plants amount to nothing more than carbon-dioxide and water.

Hydroelectric plants will continue to be built to supply demand, and they ’11 be built to last a long time because, of all the current electric energy technologies, hydroelectric has the least severe environmental impact in the long run and in the overall picture. While it’s true that hydroelectric projects destroy the local ecology, the lakes created by these projects in turn create a new ecology in the locality, one where land ecologies are replaced by water ecologies. While hydroelectric projects have taken crop lands, forest lands, and wilderness lands out of the picture, they’ve created lakes that have succored new aquatic life as well as land wildlife. And they’ve created whole new human recreational areas as well. There is no question that hydroelectric projects have a severe impact upon the local environment, changing it completely from what it was. But the Earth’s overall and local environments are not and never have been static systems. Changes wrought by natural causes are usually far greater than those created by human projects such as hydroelectric plants. If nothing more than this was learned from the 1980 eruptions of Mount St. Helens in Washington, this should have become abundantly clear, even to those who could only read about it. Therefore, we must honestly ask the question whether or not these changes wrought by humans have truly been harmful. In fact, carefully and thoughtfully carried out, hydroelectric projects can and have been extremely helpful to the environment.

A great controversy rages today about nuclear-powered electric generating plants. But the controversy is basically emotional because nobody believes anybody else’s data, especially the data that originates in the opposite camp. However, one cannot argue the validity of the overall safety of nuclear generating plants because they’ve proven themselves to be at least as safe as other types of electrical plants. Nobody ever said that nuclear plants were safe, but only that they’re at least as safe, if not safer, than other thermal generating plants and hydroelectric plants. However, even though the infamous Three Mile Island incident resulted from human operational error and even though all safety systems operated properly, it is quite unlikely that any new nuclear plant starts will be made during the 1980 decade, although existing nuclear plants under construction such as Arizona’s Palo Verde complex will be completed and put on line during the 1980 decade. This is likely to cause a shortage of electric energy in the long haul. By 1985, nuclear plants will be producing about a tenth of a gigawatt of electric energy, less than a hundredth of a percent of the 1985 estimated U.S. capacity. But other nations aren’t suffering from the same nuclear anxiety as the U.S.. France has fifteen nuclear reactors working and forty-five under construction, a factor which is likely to make France the leading energy producer in Europe. By 1985, France, Japan, and West Germany will be producing 60% of the free world’s nuclear electricity.

Geothermal plants are in operation around the world, taking advantage of the natural heat of the interior of the Earth. In 1977, geothermal plants supplied 1.8 gigawatts of electricity, most of this coming from four well-established geother-mal complexes: Laradello, Italy; the Geysers, California; Cerro Prieto, Mexico; and White Island, New Zealand. Current estimates place the world potential for geothermal electricity at only 60 gigawatts, equivalent to six SPS units or a three-year SPS construction project.

There are other terrestrial energy options currently being studied.

The combustion of biomass—wood, fuels derived from plants, and waste materials—simply cannot provide enough heat energy. If we were to burn all the available biomass on Earth in one year’s time, and if it could be converted 100% to electricity, it would amount to 9500 gigawatts or roughly five times the needed 2025 capacity for the United States. But since that would involve burning everything on Earth in one year, there wouldn’t be anything left to burn the following year because it takes time for biomass to accumulate.

Wind power offers an attractive terrestrial energy option because it can provide a worldwide annual electric energy capacity of a billion gigawatts. But the wind must blow—and sometimes it doesn’t.

Ground-based solar energy technologies offer additional options even though they suffer from an interrupted duty cycle due to the day-night cycle on Earth.

A really favorable energy option, if it could be developed, would be the solar photoelectrolysis system in which solar energy would be used to dissociate water into hydrogen and oxygen, both of which are gases that can be liquified, stored, and transported because of what we have learned about handling these gases in the space program. Of course, hydrogen would be the only product of the photoelectrolysis system that would be stored, transported, and used because when it’s bumed, the oxygen will come from the Earth’s atmosphere. The “Hydrogen Economy” energy option is a very feasible one for the 21st Century and will work along with wind power, nuclear fusion, passive solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric to help pick up the baseload now being carried by coal-fired, oil-fired, and gas-fired electric generating plants.

We will still have to depend upon some fossil fuel plants and all of the nuclear fission plants well into the 21st Century if we stick to terrestrial options.

However, if we pursue the goal of space power as quickly as possible, we can begin to shut down the nukes early in the 21st century because we can build enough Solar Power Satellites in space fast enough in the next twenty-five years to permit us to shift a very large portion of our electrical baseload requirements away from earthbound generating plants to the space power source.

And the earlier we get at it, the better.

Table III shows what happens if we opt to proceed with space power at the earliest opportunity.

1990 START
(Assume 2 10-GW SPS per year)
(Capacities in gigawatts)

YearNo. SPSSPS Capacity% Total US Capacity

The 1990 start on building an SPS system is realistic. We can get to work on obtaining space power right now if we have the will to do it. We can begin by using the NASA space shuttle as quickly as it becomes available. With the shuttle, we can begin to check out some of the new technology that will be required to build and operate the SPS system, technical factors that look “iffy” today, about which little is known, or that need to be tried out to find out the best way to make them work. This means using the shuttle to investigate (a) construction of large space structures, (b) fabrication of solar cells in space, and (c) conversion of the DC electricity from solar cell arrays into high-power radio beams.

This could lead to a decision by 1987 on whether or not to proceed with the construction of a 10-gigawatt SPS “pilot plant” in GSO for on-line operation by 1990.

A 10-gigawatt Solar Power Satellite is suggested here as a goal rather than one half that size as detailed in the DOE study. It doesn’t take much more in terms of mass or size to increase the output of an SPS to 10 Gw, and a 10 Gw SPS turns out to be more economical than a 5 Gw SPS. Besides, we just can’t do the job that needs to be done by putting only two 5-gigawatt SPS units in orbit every year. We must put twenty gigawatts up there every year to even begin to make a dent in the new electric power requirements.

To really do a job with space power, it might appear that we’d need to increase the number of SPS units put on-line from two per year up to ten per year to handle the continually increasing energy demand forecast in Table II. But this isn’t the case, as we’ll see later.

Table III tells us that if we get a move on, quit wasting precious time, and start putting two 10-gigawatt SPS units in orbit every year beginning in 1991 (with the pilot plant being on line in 1990), almost 40% of our electric power could be coming from space by 2015, twenty-five years after we start building the SPS system in earnest.

What happens if we delay things? If we suffer from a lack of will? If we can’t manage to get the capital requirements together? If we throw away the valuable years by studying the whole project to death and worrying over possible impacts when there’s no solid data to support such worries?

Table IV shows what happens when start-up is delayed to 1995. We lose about 8%. We can never count on more than 32% of our baseload being taken up by space power if we delay five years.

1995 START
(Assume 2 10-Gw SPS per year)
(Capacities in gigawatts)

YearNo. SPSSPS Capacity% Total US Capacity

Table V shows the consequences of a 2000 A. D. start. The most that space power can achieve is 25.5% of our baseload requirements.

2000 A.D. START
(Assume 2 10-Gw SPS per year)
(Capacities in gigawatts)

YearNo. SPSSPS Capacity% Total US Capacity

The data of Tables III, IV, and V indicate that we are in a Red Queen’s Race and that if we don’t start to run as quickly as we can as soon as we can, we begin playing a losing game of catch-up. This assumes that the U.S. electric energy forecast data of Table II has some validity to it.

One could rationally question the forecast of Table II in either direction. Table II was based on a conservative rate of increase of 25% over five-year periods.

If the rate of increase is greater than this—and it could well be because it has been greater at times in the past fifty years when we were trying to catch up after the Great Depression and World War II—we may never make it and we’ll have to opt for space power as only part of a solution rather than the biggest part of the energy answer.

If the rate of energy increase is less, we’ll come out as a winner because the SPS system will be able to take over an increasing percentage of the baseload, permitting us to dismantle the nukes and bank the fires of the coal plants, saving the coal to be used as chemical feedstocks instead.

Beyond 2010, it is highly likely that we’ll see a decrease in both the rate of increase and the total demand. . . but only if we exercise the space power option soon.

The longer we wait, the more dollars we’re going to have to spend to get space power.

There is a constant, historical inflation rate of 7% per annum that has been affecting the purchasing power of the dollar for the entire 200-plus years of the United States of America. True, there have been peaks and valleys in this inflation trend curve caused by wars and panics, heavy government spending and severe economic depressions. But, over the long haul of 200 years, there has been a long-term 7% inflation rate. This means that the purchasing power of the dollar is cut in half every 14.28 years … or that the price of anything will appear to double every fourteen years and three months. Note that it appears to double in price but really doesn’t. The one factor that remains relatively constant, even in the grip of severe inflation, is the true value perceived and value exchanged.

And energy isn’t free. In fact, there’s no cheap energy source. The only reason that some forms of energy seemed cheap for a time was because there were artificial government-imposed price ceilings placed upon them. When these artificial price ceilings eventually came off—as they had to, otherwise the suppliers would have gone bankrupt—the price of the formerly controlled energy shot up and finally stabilized just where it should be on the 7% inflationary curve.

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in the 1970 decade, it’s the plain fact that there is no cheap energy source.

In 1980, the average cost of any energy system is $2.00 per watt—or, to put it in terms that the utility industry uses, $2000 per kilowatt installed.

If you build an electrical generating plant that’s coal-fired, oil-fired, gas-fired, geothermal, hydroelectric, or even nuclear, the cost will run about $2000 per kilowatt by the time the plant’s on line and providing energy and revenue.

It should come as no surprise that the preliminary estimates of the cost of a Solar Power Satellite is $2000 per kilowatt installed. This number has been independently arrived at by think-tank study groups, by the utility industry, and by the U.S. Department of Energy.

But there’s a very important difference when it comes to the cost for an SPS system to provide space power:

The $2000 per kilowatt installed cost for an SPS includes a pro-rata cost of the space transportation system needed to place the SPS in geosynch orbit, said cost based on a reasonable figure for costs of repair, maintenance, and replacement of worn-out spacecraft.

By doing the SPS system instead of the other Earth-based energy alternatives, we open the door to the Solar System on a massive scale that affects even the future of the SPS system.

All of these numbers, all of these forecasts, and all of these facts tell us some important things:

(a) To meet forecast electric energy requirements, we’re going to have to continue to build electric generating plants.

(b) It costs the same to build any kind of an electric generating plant: $2000 per kilowatt installed.

(c) If we build the generating capacity on Earth, we will have to use non-renewable fossil fuels or nuclear energy.

(d) If we build the generating capacity on Earth, we will slowly deplete the energy sources here, and the result will probably be fuel allocations before twenty-five years (or the life of the generating plant) have passed.

(e) If we build the generating capacity here on Earth, we will have to get rid of the waste products somehow—and these waste products are combustion gases, waste heat (no system can operate without wasting something), radioactive carbon-14 from coal burning, sulfur from petroleum burning, carbon dioxide and water from natural gas burning, and nuclear waste from nuclear plants.

(f) If we build our generating capability in space in the form of an SPS system, it isn’t going to cost us any more money than if we build comparable capacity generating plants on the Earth.

(g) If we build the SPS system, it will use a renewable energy source, the Sun, and the SPS units will have a design lifetime of thirty years or more.

(h) If we build the SPS system, we also buy ourselves one very large and very versatile space transportation system which permits us to achieve the ultimate: space power in all its forms.