Space Power Chapter 6: Energy Anywhere

by G. Harry Stine

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

Chapter 6: Energy Anywhere

It’s always a difficult task for a forecaster to correctly and completely identify all the consequences of his forecasts, much less even to consider them all in detail if he could spot them. The best one can do is to attempt to target a few of the more obvious consequences, then to study them to see if and to what extent they affect the synergy of the forecast itself.

This certainly holds true in the case of space power.

We’ve already seen how the SPS program can create some spinoffs or consequences that affect the future of space activity and, to some extent, the future of allied activities on Earth. To summarize the most important ones: (a) the SPS program creates a large, reliable, and low-cost space transportation system operating on published schedules, (b) the SPS system creates large space facilities capable of housing up to a thousand people, (c) the large space transportation system fosters an increased level of activity in space science as well as in space manufacturing, (d) the capabilities of tfte SPS space transportation system permit Inner Solar System transportation of people and cargo, thus permitting the use of extraterrestrial materials for SPS construction, reducing SPS costs by a factor of up to four times.

Meanwhile, back on Earth . . .

Regardless of the future scenario that’s chosen—short of the one that prognosticates all-out general war with massive thermonuclear warhead exchanges—the SPS program and its consequences begin to have growing effects on earthbound activities starting approximately five years after the program goes into high-gear, building two 10-gigawatt SPS units in space every year.

One of these consequences is the increasing assumption of the baseload energy demand by the SPS system approximately ten to fifteen years after the program starts. If SPS units can be built at a faster rate than two per year, the SPS system is able to assume a greater percentage of the baseload demand; if the program start is delayed, the SPS system is able to pick up a reduced percentage of the baseload demand because of the catch-up game characteristics of energy demand.

But, with the inevitable introduction of extraterrestrial materials into the SPS program and the resulting reduced costs of SPS construction—perhaps dropping as low as $500 per kilowatt installed, which is a very attractive cost figure—an increased number could be built in Earth orbit, eventually to the point where we’ve ringed the Earth with SPS units in GSO.

How many SPS units could be placed in GSO? If all SPS units are placed in the equatorial geosynchronous orbit at a distance of 35,890 kilometers (22,400 miles) from Earth, if each SPS unit occupies an area of fifty square kilometers in that orbit, and if we allow for a spacing of fifteen kilometers between SPS units, it’s possible to place 17,700 SPS units in GSO. That would supply a total space power capacity of 177,000 gigawatts.

That’s almost eighty-seven times the total forecast U.S. energy demand for the year 2025, which is as far as we dared to take our demand forecast.

We’ll never build 17,700 SPS units.

We may never have to build more than two hundred SPS units to supply the U.S. demand.

This is because a strange consequence falls out of the SPS program after approximately twenty years.

With a mature SPS technology functioning in space along with the accompanying space transportation system that permits low-cost industrial operations in space, plus the availability of extraterrestrial materials, we could look forward to seeing the relocation of an increasing amount of industrial activity into space. This includes the strong possibility of relocation of even the “heavy industries” of Herman Kahn’s secondary industrial category, the refinement category.

More and more companies are going to find it attractive to locate the new industrial facilities in space for one or all of a number of reasons.

Among these reasons are the following:

Energy will cost less in space, and the cost of energy is a critical item in many industrial operations. On Earth energy comes primarily from the combusion of fossil fuels. By the early 21st century, there will be severe social pressures to conserve these non-renewable resources by using them for chemical feedstocks instead of sending them up the stack as combustion products.

Space has no biosphere to pollute. And industrial operations in space cannot possibly pollute the terrestrial environment. Even rocket operations providing transportation to the space facilities from the Earth’s surface will produce only carbon dioxide and water in their exhausts . . . and there’s no way that enough rocket vehicles can be launched to even equal the pollutant volume that’s being vented into the atmosphere in 1980 by industry everywhere, in spite of pollution controls. And by the early 21st century, social pressures are going to create some very difficult and demanding antipollution laws. It’s going to be cheaper and easier for industry to move from an expensive site where their operations may harm the ecology out to a place where there is no ecology to damage.

Raw materials will be easier and cheaper to obtain in space than on Earth. Most of the high-grade ore bodies on Earth have been worked-out or are reaching the point where it’s possible to forecast that they will be exhausted within a finite period of time. Our industrial civilization is based on iron, and there is plenty of iron in space. There are also aluminum, magnesium, and other basic metals available in the Solar System because we’ve already sampled the Moon and Mars and because we can make a very intelligent estimate of the composition of the rocks in the planetoid belt as a result of studying the composition of the meteorites that have fallen to Earth from space. There is also a very good chance that the most critical element, nitrogen, will be available in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. For a more detailed discussion of extraterrestrial materials, see The Third Industrial Revolution and The Space Enterprise.

The ready availability of low-cost energy and abundant raw materials along with the absence of any need to worry about pollution are three very serious and attractive factors that will cause industry to move into space, and these three factors become attractive as a consequence of the SPS program.

As industry moves into orbit in the first two to three decades of the 21st century, the relocation activity begins to have a profound impact upon terrestrial activities, specifically upon energy consumption.

In 1980, more than 60% of the energy demand of the United States is used for industrial purposes. Only about 40% is used for domestic purposes to provide heat and light for commercial and domestic activities.

If we can shift even 50% of the baseload energy demand into space by making it more attractive for industrial operations to be relocated there during the first half of the 21st century, the total baseload demand of the United States can be reduced.

The upward trend of energy demand shown unmistakably in Table I of the previous chapter can either be stabilized or reversed by the year 2050.

At that point, all of the United States’ energy demand can come from the SPS system, from decentralized terrestrial passive solar systems, from geothermal sources, from hydroelectric plants, and from wind turbines. All of the old electrical plants that used fossil fuels can be retired and dismantled as they reach the end of their design lifetimes.

All of the nuclear reactor electric plants will have been shut down long before this as they, too, reach the end of their depreciated lifetimes and can be written off. No new nukes will be required in order to maintain the baseload capacity dictated by demand.

We will have completed a major shift in direction of our high-technology culture by converting to renewable energy resources without severe energy shortages and with the minimum amount of dislocation in our culture because we will have done it sensibly over a long enough period of time to permit people to be retired without having to be retrained, a new generation of people to be educated and trained to work with the new systems, and existing facilities to be depreciated over their design lifetimes with little financial dislocation.

We will have made the shift to space power.

And it will cost the same as trying to stay on Earth, build new facilities to eke out another fifty years’ worth of energy from non-renewable resources, modify or build new industrial facilities to meet a growing trend of concern for a safe and healthy environment, and search the Earth for new sources of raw materials from an ever-decreasing storehouse of mineral wealth.

Big as the Planet Earth may be, it is still finite, and the activities of the human race are rapidly making the world a smaller and smaller place for a growing number of things. Staying on Earth and trying to “make the best of it” by conservation is no long-term solution and we do not know what the long-term consequences may be. However, we suspect that some of the short-term consequences may be fatal.

Continual technological progress and its corollary of expansion into the Solar System offers a better chance for the future because we know that progress and expansion have been historically workable. Granted that there are problems with progress and expansion, but these problems can be solved.

Better the Devil we know than the Devil we know not.

Space power offers a hopeful solution to the problems of today and the future.

This is not true of any other proposal for future action.

Nor does any other proposal offer the same or better degree of hope for improvement to the low-tech nations of the world, the so-called Third World, the smaller countries emerging from the grip of colonialism, the have-not peoples of the world. Space power does.

Why? Because space power means the ability to deliver energy anywhere in the world on a power beam.

And energy makes a culture go. Energy in excess of that required to sustain mere survival can be diverted into growth and improvement. Without it, people are fated to subsist forever in a climate of poverty and want. They can’t grow enough high-energy food or even enough food, period, to have any excess personal energy to accomplish anything more than stay alive from day to day. There is no excess energy to turn into capital wealth in the form of facilities to provide products, jobs, services, and protection. There is nothing to put away for the contingencies of the future. There is not enough energy to permit growth and improvement.

Energy is the food of social progress.

How can a low-tech people obtain SPS power?

How can they best put it to use?

We can make a few educated guesses. But each people, each nation, each culture has different problems and different needs because of their unique history, geography, and cultural elements. There is no single solution to either of the two questions asked above. There is a different set of answers for each culture, each nation.

But we can take a crack at it in order to produce examples of how low-tech people could benefit from space power.

One of the first forecasters to take a serious look at the problem is Dr. J. Peter Vajk, author of Doomsday Has Been Cancelled (Peace Press, Culver City CA, 1978).

Dr. Vajk considered how an SPS could be used by India, which is a country with vast potential but lacking in energy resources to support its large population. India can be considered as a “typical” low-tech country, if such a thing exists in light of the statement qualifying differences made above. Although part of India’s problem lies in the structure of its socio-economic system (as has been pointed out by Dr. Milton Friedman in his book, Free to Choose (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1980), and in his public television series of the same name), this self-same centralized economic control system provides the means to acquire and use SPS power effectively for India if the planners and officials think through the system to discover the sort of solutions that would be most workable. Dr. Vajk did.

Most of the world thinks of India in terms of the teeming masses of humanity crowded into the larger cities of Calcutta and Bombay. But about 80% of India’s population is rural, living in some 600,000 villages averaging less than a thousand individuals each. More than half these villages have populations of less than five hundred. In spite of the fact that one of the legacies of the British Empire in India is an extensive railway system, there are vast areas of the country where little or no transportation is available to rural villages. The road system is inadequate to support extensive trade between rural and urban areas, increasing the problems of feeding the people in the cities.

India has an energy problem in common with the rest of the world, but the nature of the problem is different. There is no established national electric power grid. Most of the larger cities have electric utility systems, but this power grid doesn’t extend into the countryside.

How would India use the electricity of an SPS?

It would seem at first glance that the primary beneficiaries of SPS power in India would be the inhabitants of the cities, if they could afford the electric lighting and heating fixtures. However, the primary users of SPS electricity would probably be factories and heavy industry, which is not developed to the point where any single location in India could use even ten gigawatts of SPS power. It seems unlikely that India would undertake a massive expansion program for her primary industries merely to use the output of an SPS because the capital investment would be several thousand dollars per created job, which amounts to hundreds of man-years of labor with a national average GNP of less than $200 per capita per year.

This conclusion results from looking at India’s problems from the point of view of a person from a high-tech nation such as the United States. India can use the output of not one SPS, but several SPS units, and this electricity will help the country solve not only its energy problem, but will also assist in increased agricultural output, better land management, development of a rural transportation and communication system, and development of low-tech industrial capabilities whose output and know-how is marketable in other low-tech nations as an export.

The primary energy sources in rural India are firewood and cattle dung which are transported for short distances by animals, oxcarts, or bicycles and are primarily used for heating and cooking in rural homes. One ton of firewood or dung is used per person per year. It has led to increasing deforestation which in turn has led to land erosion. And the animal dung could be better used as agricultural fertilizer to increase the crop yield of the farmlands without resorting to the expensive importation of chemical fertilizers as is now done and which doesn’t reach many rural areas because of the lack of suitable transportation.

To distribute the SPS electricity to the rural areas would require a massive capital investment in a power grid along with capital investment in rural electrification of homes and production of electric heating and cooking appliances.

The need is therefore for solid or liquid fuels, not electricity.

Methanol (methyl alcohol) is an excellent liquid fuel that can be burned in small, easily made, simple stoves that will provide heat for both cooking and comfort, in spite of the fact that such stoves deliver only about 9% of the chemical energy content of the fuel to cooking utensils versus about 36% for electric or natural gas stoves. Methanol can be transported in glass or plastic containers of any convenient size. Methanol can be made from air, water, and organic material using electricity.

Approximately 400 kilograms of methanol per year per person, about two liters per day, would replace the ton of firewood or dung presently consumed. Assuming a 50% efficiency in converting electrical energy into the chemical energy of methanol, one 10-gigawatt SPS would supply enough methanol for sixteen million people per year. Thus, seventy-five SPS units would be able to supply the rural energy needs of India in the early 21st century.

If 1200 methanol synthesis plants were built within fifty kilometers of rectenna sites, the average distance for transportation of methanol to rural customers would be about twenty-five kilometers, comparable to distances over which firewood is now being transported.

Although rectennas contain some high-technology semiconductor components, the labor for the assembly of a rectenna requires only semi-skilled people easily obtained in the large cities and readily trained. Assuming that the seventy-five SPS rectennas were constructed over a fifteen year program, this would provide jobs for 850,000 people. When the program was completed, this labor force then becomes an exportable item capable of assembling rectennas in other low-tech countries. Once the rectenna system is in place, it would require 75,000 semi-skilled people for operation, maintenance, and repair.

Each methanol synthesis plant would produce some 1,100 metric tons per day and require about two million eight-liter containers or their equivalent per year. These can be manufactured from glass or ceramics using very old technology. About 60,000 glassblowers and potters would be needed to manufacture the containers. Thus, a large container industry is developed with a capability to export large numbers of containers to other countries in which this same program of utilizing SPS power would work.

With methanol transported in eight-liter jugs, delivery of this fuel to rural users would require as many as ten million rural workers distributing the jugs entirely by bicycle, handcart, and oxcart. Eventually, regional pipeline networks would be built using ceramic or plastic pipes to reduce the average distance of transportation.

Thus, space power in India could be used to create new industries and new jobs to supply methanol fuel, stoves, and containers to eliminate the current use of firewood and dung.

The dung could then be used for agricultural fertilizer, reducing foreign exchange imbalances due to fertilizer imports. It would also increase the viability of the soil and produce greater crop yields, thus providing more food for India’s population.

The substitution of methanol for firewood means that this fuel source which uses 20% of India’s biomass production would be left in place for soil erosion control. Alternately, the land that was formerly used to grow firewood could be used for other crops, thus further increasing the food production.

This is a prime example of using the systems analysis techniques developed by high-tech nations to solve the problems of the low-tech nations. It’s also an example of how high technology can be used to solve problems that are critical in the world of low-tech.

The critical item is the recognition of the problem. It requires, in the case of India, a knowledge of the massive scale of ecological damage caused by the dependence on firewood and dung for heating and cooking by the rural population of India.

However, India is not a truly poor country. It has a very long history of cultural and intellectual excellence. Even in 1980, it is a space power with its own satellite launching vehicles. Its basic problems lie in its socio-economic organization which is a legacy of its own historical development as well as its brief colonial period as part of the British Empire. It can organize and develop its capabilities to use space power as detailed in this example.

How about a truly poor country?

It’s not my intention to single out one specific country to provide an example just because of any bias. But there is one African country that has immense problems whose solutions could be at least initiated by the proper use of space power.

The Republique du Niger (not the Federal Republic of Nigeria; look at the map of Africa) is a landlocked country in central Africa that gained its independence from France in 1960.

It has a mixed population of 4,300,000 people with sedentary Negro peoples—Djerma-Songhai, Hausa, and Beriberi-Manga—existing alongside nodmadic herdsmen such as the Fulani, Berber Tuaregs, and Tebu. Only about 10% of the population is urban. The population growth rate is about 2.3% per year.

The Niger River runs through the countryside, but the river isn’t navigable to the sea. The climate includes the Sahara Desert in the north and the savannah in the south with rainfall averages from zero to 20 inches per year.

The Gross Domestic Product in 1971 was $400,000,000, or about $100 per capita. Imports exceed exports. There is practically no industrial base. The economy is based upon stockbreeding and agricultural crops such as millet, rice, cotton, and peanuts.

Except for uranium and tin, there has been little development of natural resouces. Prospecting and exploration have revealed economical deposits of copper, molybdenum, nickle, iron, and phosphates. Recent test drillings have revealed a deposit of more than 4,500,000 tons of coal.

Niger has no railway and only three airports. The road system has been improved in recent years, and the Niger River was finally bridged at Gay a in 1958, providing a road link to Dahomey and the coast.

The principal energy source in Niger is firewood whose continued and increasing use has accelerated the encroachment of the Sahara Desert and aggravated the effects of drought in the Sahel region.

Niger lacks the energy resources to build a transportation system to permit the extraction of its coal for additional energy, the development of its natural resources as additional export items, and the improvement of its agricultural base along the Niger River and on the broad savannahs.

If Niger could obtain the foreign capital investment to build a rectenna and buy the output of a single 10-gigawatt SPS, it would have the energy necessary to begin the development of its social institutions and its untouched natural wealth.

The Niger River is the largest river in West Africa and the third longest on the continent after the Nile and the Congo. In many ways, it’s like the Rio Grande River in North America. It drains an area of 580,000 square miles. But it isn’t navigable to the Bight of Benin. And it flows through the country of Niger with no favorable locations to build hydroelectric dams or impoundment reservoirs that might make more water available for agriculture. But it does provide a water table for 450 kilometers of river valley through southwestern Niger. And where there’s a river valley, wells can be drilled and water can be pumped to sustain irrigated agriculture.

If there’s energy available to pump the water.

A rectenna located on the broad savannah near Tahoua about 400 kilometers northeast of the capital city of Niamey on the Niger River, along with two electrical transmission lines—one leading to the Niger River Valley near Niamey and the other leading to the ore and coal deposits near the Air Massif mountain area—would permit the people of Niger to pump underground water for more intensive irrigated agriculture both in the Niger River plain and on the broad savannahs that, in some ways, are akin to the Great Plains of the United States. The Air Massif transmission line would permit the working of the ore and coal deposits and the operation of an electrified railway. Since Niger is a member of the Common Organization for the Saharan Regions and the West African Monetary Union (part of the French franc area), the railway could be extended to Lagos or Cotonou with the co-operation of Nigeria or Dahomey, or to the existing railway link terminating at Ouagadougou in Upper Volta and leading down to Abadan on the Ivory Coast. This would provide railway access to the interior of Saharan Africa for the natural resources of ore and coal that exist there, untapped because of the lack of energy, as well as for the agricultural output of reclaimed and irrigated river valley, savannah, and Saharan lands which, properly managed with modern agricultural technology, could not only feed Niger but most of West Africa as well.

Energy is the key. Without energy, the wealth of the North African region lies locked in the land and mountains forever. With energy to pump more water and grow more food, people have the extra energy to undertake low-technology people-intensive capital improvements in their environment.

True, Niger would be in competition with the space enterprise in the area of raw materials. However, abundant and economical as extraterrestrial materials may turn out to be, the ore bodies of Earth will probably continue to be richer and more concentrated and, to some extent, will continue to be competitive in many respects with some extraterrestrial sources. For while we are blithely forging ahead in space, we must keep in mind that not all peoples on Earth are adverse to the exploitation of their natural resources because these natural resources may be the only export they have until they establish, through technology they can buy with these exports, their own measure of self-sufficiency, whatever that level of regional economic autonomy may be.

But these two examples should show the tremendous variety of responses to the question of how the SPS system can help the low-tech and poor nations of the world as well as the more advanced economic units.

Regardless of the socio-economic condition or system, and regardless of the social institutions involved, energy is the key to survival as well as to civilization.

And space power can provide the energy anywhere on Earth . . . or in space.