Sun Power: The Global Solution

for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 5 for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 5

Sun Power

by Ralph Nansen

Copyright 1995 by Ralph Nansen, reproduced with permission

Chapter 5: Criteria For A New Energy Source

In the early 1970s, the United States was riding the wave of abundant wealth—wealth provided by low-cost energy. Then came the OPEC oil embargo. The resulting energy crisis is now two decades old. America has fallen from its economic pinnacle and has suffered the woes of recession. Real income has dropped as the United States has gone from being the largest creditor nation to the largest debtor nation. It has lost domestic market share in all 26 major industries, per-capita gross domestic product has dropped from first to tenth position, and the national debt has soared to $5 trillion.

Ronald E. Bates of the Chicago Tribune vividly characterized the situation as “a war of economic survival . . . and the US is losing.”

At the start of the 1970s energy crisis, after the first pointing of fingers and blame casting, there were some bold statements made by our leaders that we would strive for “energy independence.” Unfortunately, they neglected to tell us how. Jimmy Carter formed the Department of Energy with a mandate to develop new energy systems. The DOE funded several programs including Boeing’s solar power satellite studies under my leadership and encouraged other organizations to develop alternative energy sources. However, the emphasis was on systems that could be developed in a hurry and that did not require much capital investment.

While I was briefing one of the senior DOE managers on the solar satellite program, I asked him, “What criteria are you going to use to select the best energy systems to develop?” He looked at me with a blank stare and then replied, “We’ll know when the time comes.”

I was appalled. If the requirements of a system aren’t established at the beginning of a program, there is no way to measure the program’s success. The Department of Energy was trying to lead the nation in the development of new energy systems and its staff had not established any criteria except that they wanted the systems in a hurry and they wanted them to be as inexpensive as possible. Not surprisingly, twenty years later, we have still to implement a new energy system to replace the dwindling oil supplies.

Historically, the US has always placed the emphasis on short-term solutions. This policy is a result of our bottom-line, quick-profit–oriented economic focus. Other nations, like Japan, focus on long-term results and are thus able to invest the necessary time and research to devise better products and systems. We see this long-term philosophy paying off for Japan in the form of superior televisions and cars. And, most significant to our current topic, Japan has already performed the first in-space test of wireless energy transmission. They plan to test a 10 megawatt solar power satellite in low earth orbit by the year 2000 and to provide 30% of the global energy needs by the year 2040. A very ambitious goal indeed and one that if accomplished would place them in absolute economic control of the earth.

After the oil embargo, while the DOE shifted its focus from energy program development to watchdogging the nuclear power industry, the government placed its energy solution emphasis on conservation as the only readily available option. Conservation is easy because it happens naturally; like the default settings on a computer program, it does not require any deliberate actions. Conservation is easily implemented by the force of economic pressures, even if we do nothing else to impose it.

Since oil is the major world energy source, it controls the pricing structure of all the other competing sources. As oil prices rise, the demand for competing low-cost sources skyrockets and their capacity is soon exceeded. The result is an increase in the demand for oil, and the producers can set their prices arbitrarily high in response to the demand.

As the cost of our energy increases we individually find ways to use less in order to balance our own budgets. Oil prices increased fourfold in 1974, and then in 1979, after the fall of the Shah in Iran, they increased another two and a half times. As prices increased, we automatically turned to conservation simply because the increased cost to maintain our previous usage was beyond our means to pay. I joined many others when I traded my gas-thirsty Pontiac Firebird for a Volkswagen and cut down on extra trips.

One day in the late 1970s, after most of the conservation steps had been authorized by the government, I gathered a group of energy experts in my office to help me develop material for a radio debate on the subject of energy development in the United States. I asked them how they would characterize conservation. A discussion followed and finally one of the them said, “Conservation is really the organizing of scarcity and the distributing of less and less to more and more.” Another added, “Conservation is a slow walk down a dead-end street.”

Conservation has eliminated much waste and has worked well enough to keep the country going, but it cannot provide the foundation for increased productivity or for an increase in our standard of living, nor can it provide the economic growth for which most of us strive, and it can’t replace the depleted oil and coal supplies. Unfortunately, the government is still using conservation as its primary energy policy and is not vigorously pursuing alternative energy sources to replace oil.

What Are the Requirements?

Worried about the future of the planet, six Nobel Prize winning scientists were joined by 95 other Nobel laureates and 1,479 scientists from 70 nations in November 1992 to issue “A Warning To Humanity.” The statement says, in part, that “a great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” Among the actions called for in the statement is to reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase the use of solar energy, wind power, and other energy sources that are inexhaustible and more environmentally benign.

If we are to reverse the recent process of degradation and find a source of energy that can move us from the waning days of the third era of energy into the fourth era, and into the next century, we must find a way to identify the most workable energy solution.

History has shown us that energy is the engine that drives modern civilization. The cost of energy, how plentiful it is, what form it has, and the extent of its environmental impact overshadows all other developmental influences on commerce and industry. We need to find a new energy source that will allow us to regain control over our destiny and move us into the fourth era of energy. The question is, how do we know which energy source to develop to accomplish that goal?

In order to answer that question, it will be helpful to review the reasons that a replacement energy system has not been developed despite the obvious need for one.

The solar power satellite program received very positive reviews when it was first introduced, but implementation threatened the profits of the established energy industry. The nuclear fusion advocates aggressively and successfully lobbied to stop any further solar power satellite energy research. Over the past four decades, hundreds of millions of dollars each year have been spent on fusion research with limited success. The fusion people knew they had to kill the satellite program or they would quite possibly lose their funding. They set out to stifle the one program they knew could be successful in order to maintain their own special program status and income.

I asked several members of Congress how they could justify funding fusion energy development with hundreds of millions of dollars a year when it showed such little progress for the investment. At the same time, Congress was giving solar power satellite development less than ten million a year, and the progress was spectacular. I discovered that, during its early development, fusion research was often commingled with weapons research and no one outside of the classified programs was really sure of what was going on. Technology breakthroughs were often announced or implied, with predictions that usable fusion power was “only twenty years away.” In the 1970s, the researchers were still saying it was twenty years away but no one could postulate a realistic design for a working power plant. The damage the fusion lobbyists have caused the American economy is appalling.

Many other systems, such as breeder reactors and synthetic fuels, were also investigated in the 1970s. These systems were being supported by the resources of the nuclear power industry and by the oil industry, but still, they were unsuccessful.

There are two fundamental reasons. After the election of Ronald Reagan as President, the government energy development policy was essentially eliminated. The new administration decided to let market pressures and private industry set price and policy. That put the existing private energy industry in control so they no longer had any reason to fund new energy sources that would compete with themselves. In addition, developing an enormous new energy system is so costly and the time it takes to bring it on line is so long, it is unlikely that private industry alone could do the job, even if it wanted to. However, before Reagan, the government had been successful at funding, developing, and coordinating huge projects that private industry couldn’t afford like the national railroad system in the nineteenth century, the highway system under Eisenhower, and the space program under Kennedy.

The government has never followed through on developing realistic requirements for an energy system, and it has totally ignored the natural forces of the marketplace. The focus has been on short-term solutions with low initial cost, ignoring the fact that new energy systems and industries require time and money to develop the necessary technology. Without realistic criteria and a commitment over the long term, there’s no way to evaluate which energy systems should be developed. The situation suited the energy industry perfectly as their lobbyists could promote solutions that would enhance their ability to make money without having to meet any requirements.

A case in point is synthetic fuels that are made from coal, oil shale, or tar sands. Due to a lack of oil resources, Germany used synthetic fuels in the second World War and South Africa used them when embargoes threatened their oil imports. Both the extraction and burning processes of synthetic fuels produce high levels of pollution, and the extraction and refining costs are astronomical. Congress, during the Carter Administration, budgeted $88 billion for synthetic fuel development for the US. When measured against any set of realistic criteria, synthetic fuels have no long-range merit except to make their developers rich. They are fuels of last resort, not energy to run the future.

Establishing criteria to fit our needs is logically the first step for solving any problem. If you don’t define what you are trying to accomplish, there’s no way to measure your success. Properly selected criteria should define the needs of the goal without implying or defining a specific solution. The Department of Energy’s mistake was to define a solution instead of a need. That approach has prevented the serious evaluation of alternative energy sources. The opposite occurs when a need is defined by a set of criteria or requirements—the possibilities are expanded.

Setting criteria is a little like setting rules for a game. Before the game starts, all of the participants must agree on the rules that will measure how each performs. In the same way, participants in a new project must agree on the criteria before starting the development phase so the results can be evaluated the same way by all the participants.

Criteria represent the goals that we want to achieve. When establishing criteria, there are three questions that need to be asked: What is it we are trying to accomplish? What is wrong with the way things are now? What specific changes would improve the situation? Defining criteria is the process of putting goals into quantifiable form so that we can measure our progress towards the goals.

When a requirement is established that is beyond currently existing technology, the challenge to the engineers usually results in new and innovative solutions. It opens up new areas of technology to meet the requirements. For example, if a requirement for a new airplane is the ability to carry a heavy payload a longer distance than has been previously possible without refueling, then the engineers have to find ways to reduce weight or increase fuel efficiency, or develop some other idea in order to meet the criteria. Examples of technology developed in response to need include infrared vision which was invented in response to the need for weather satellites to be able to film the earth through the clouds, and the advanced jet instrument technology invented when planes first exceeded the speed of sound, needed because the vibration made the instruments at the time inaccurate.

If we are to identify an energy system that can replace oil, we have to start with the right criteria. When we started the solar power satellite project in the 1970s, one of our first tasks was to develop a set of criteria for a new energy system so we could measure how well we were progressing and have a way to evaluate whether the concept would be successful. I tried repeatedly to encourage the Department of Energy to use the criteria, but was never successful. The DOE was staffed mainly with nuclear advocates, and one of their primary functions was to develop nuclear weapons. It was not surprising they rejected our energy criteria because it would not have supported the continued development of advanced nuclear systems.

As a free and idealistic nation, there is no reason not to include criteria for a new energy system that reflect our values. These include our desire for a higher standard of living for ourselves and for the rest of the world. We can take into account that our world is a finite globe that must be protected if it is to provide a home for all of its creatures in the future. Our criteria can recognize that we don’t believe any peoples should be oppressed for the benefit of others. Applying our values to the criteria means that we must look toward a low-cost energy source so that it can be equally available to everyone.

What gives us so much confidence in solar power satellites as a viable energy option for the future is the fact that they can satisfy the criteria, including those that reflect our values. In the talks and briefings I gave about the solar program, I always explained how the system satisfies those fundamental requirements. The public understood perfectly why they were so important. Unfortunately, like all government agencies, the Department of Energy simply could not accept the idea of losing control by accepting criteria that would allow independent solutions.

The government still has not established realistic criteria for an energy solution for the future; for an energy system that is suitable for the fourth energy era. Since the Department of Energy has failed to perform this most fundamental function of government, I will advance the set of criteria we developed when we first started the program at Boeing. They are as valid today as in the 1970s, and they are absolutely critical to the selection of a new energy system. The reason there is no viable new energy system being developed today is because of the failure to establish valid criteria for making decisions. Instead the effort has been and is still being applied to programs and systems that can never satisfy the needs of the future, but are the pet scheme of some bureaucrat or politician. Enormous sums of money have been wasted, when instead they could have been applied to solving the problem if only the decision-makers had used a few simple criteria to measure the value of the product they were trying to develop.

How Much Can it Cost?

The first energy crisis occurred in England in the sixteenth century when the demand for wood exceeded the supply. Those who could afford it paid exorbitant prices to prospering wood importers while the poor did without. In response to the dwindling fuel supplies, the large coal deposits of England were mined and substituted for wood. Not only was coal a satisfactory substitute, it also offered many advantages. It was abundant, low in cost to mine and transport, and relatively compact so it provided more energy for the weight than an equivalent amount of wood. Coal also burns hotter than wood and the increased energy could accomplish more tasks. Because of its vast coal supplies, England rose to a position of industrial and economic dominance in the world in the eighteenth century, despite its limited land area. England maintained its leading economic position in the world until the United States—floating on a sea of oil—burst on the scene.

Oil was first used extensively during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Its use was limited at first because of the high price of extraction; coal still dominated the energy market. As the availability of oil expanded, the price dropped and usage increased. Whale oil, which had been used for years as lamp fuel, was replaced by petroleum products because of the lower cost. When vast quantities of oil were discovered in the US after the turn of the twentieth century, the price of oil dropped and use expanded dramatically. The productive capacity and economic standing of the United States multiplied until, by the end of the second World War, its productivity had no equal on earth. Our expansion had been built on the availability of low-cost energy. For decades the US remained the dominant world economic power because its oil continued to flow out of the ground like water. Early on, even the oil that came from the Middle East was pumped by US companies who paid only a small percentage of the profits to the source country.

History has shown that, wherever low-cost energy appears, economic prosperity follows. Though low cost cannot be the sole criterion for an energy source, the cost must be in an acceptable range that will make the power widely available or no large-scale development can occur.

Energy cost does not necessarily have to be low during the development stages, but it must be low over the long term. In the early part of the eighteenth century when oil was first being developed as a power source, it was selling for two dollars a gallon—extremely expensive by the standards of the day. By the 1930s, the price of oil had dropped to twenty-five cents a barrel nationwide, and even dropped as low as two cents a barrel in West Texas.

Therefore, the first and most obvious criterion for an energy source is low cost after the development stage. However, there are other, more important considerations if an energy source is to have longevity and keep up with an increasing world population.

How Much Energy Do We Need?

Each succeeding era of energy passes at an accelerating pace as the demand for energy grows with an increasing world population and expanding industrialization. The first energy era, the Era of Wood, came to an end because, even though wood is a renewable resource, it could not be grown fast enough to satisfy demand. Today, impoverished nations are still stripping their lands of wood to cook food, keep warm, or to sell for hard currency.

During the second and third energy periods we used stored energy in the form of coal and oil. It took millions of years for these fuels to accumulate in the earth, and we are devouring them in mere centuries with only a fraction of the earth’s population participating in the feast. There are literally billions of people in the world looking toward the industrialized nations with envy and hope as they struggle to achieve the level of prosperity we have enjoyed because of our energy resources.

Oil in the United States seemed limitless after the great oil fields of Texas were opened. Americans could afford to use any amount they wished. Oil created the giant industrial nation of the twentieth century, but after only fifty years we have had to resort to imported oil to satisfy our desires. There are still large reserves of oil in the world, but the end is in sight after less than a century into the third energy era.

The United States alone consumes a quarter of the world’s energy. Maybe we are using more than our share; perhaps we should cut our consumption. But we have already felt the results of reduced energy use since the start of the oil crisis. Our standard of living has fallen and our economy has stumbled badly. Conservation, which has dramatically increased efficiency in energy usage, has also contributed to our lowered standard of living. More importantly, increased fuel costs were a primary cause of our economic decline. Industries moved abroad, unemployment rose, and the national debt has exploded. Our high standard of living was based on the availability of ample, low-cost energy. A further reduction in our energy usage will eventually reduce us to the poverty of the third-world nations.

What about the rest of the world? The first time I visited China in 1979, it was just beginning to open its borders to increased trade with the outside world. By the time of my second visit in 1985, it had made great strides in modernizing its society and developing a market-based economy. Today China has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Its mission is to raise the standard of living to match that of the Western world. One of the first goals is to provide each family with a refrigerator. After walking the streets of the Chinese cities, surrounded by hordes of people, it is hard to imagine the number of refrigerators that would require. The task of manufacturing and distributing millions, if not billions, of refrigerators requires a huge amount of energy—enough to increase world energy consumption by 7%. If China achieves its long-range goal of matching the standard of living of the United States, world energy consumption would double. How long will the oil last and how high will its price go if the available energy has to supply China’s increased demand? And China is only one nation. To raise the rest of the world’s underdeveloped nations up to our standard of living would again double the amount of energy needed. But we can’t deny the rest of the world the opportunity to advance.

With the energy demand increasing throughout the world, we can no longer rely on finite resources stored in the earth. Therefore, as a second criterion we need a nondepletable energy source that is either so vast that we cannot consume it, or a source that will renew itself at a sufficiently high rate to keep up with demand.

We Can No Longer Ignore the Environment

We are learning—from sad experience—that our environment is far more fragile than we had imagined. The earth cannot tolerate the abuse of billions of people without the environment changing in ways that may be hostile to human life. Plant and animal life forms are disappearing at a rate that is much faster than the natural course of evolution, and unless we cease our carelessness, we will surely destroy what is now remaining, and ultimately ourselves in the process.

Burning wood, coal, and oil has sharply increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with devastating effects. The increase is causing negative changes in the world climate and threatening the earth with the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide levels have been increasing at an accelerating rate every year since they were first recorded in 1957.

In the 1950s, London was plagued by “killer smog” caused by burning coal used to heat homes. The smog of Los Angeles is known worldwide, but less well known is the greater smog caused by coal and charcoal in the cities of China. When the Eastern Block nations opened their borders, the world was given a glimpse of the horror that careless burning of fossil fuels can cause. In the Romanian town of Copsa Mica, soot from coal burning has stained everything black; it is known as “black town” where animals die within a few years inside the city limits. In the former Soviet Union, the Ukraine produces eight times as many atmospheric pollution particles as the entire United States. In Canada and the United States, acid rains caused by coal burning are damaging mountain lakes and forests. In Germany, the Black Forest is dying from coal pollution.

In areas around the world where wood is still available, wood-burning stoves and fireplaces are used to save money on heating bills, but wood smoke degrades air quality to dangerous levels. In the United States, wood-burning bans are now common during the winter months.

Both fossil fuel and nuclear power plants generate thermal pollution in addition to electricity. In the process of converting heat energy into electricity, two thirds of the heat is wasted and must be absorbed into the environment, but even one extra degree of heat can render a lake deadly to the fish that live in it.

Other forms of nuclear contamination are even deadlier than thermal pollution. The Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster spread radiation contamination over vast areas of the former Soviet Union and its neighboring countries. Even wood from the area can’t be burned or milled into products because of the radiation residue in the trees. There is also the matter of the radioactive waste that accumulates as a by-product of generating electricity from nuclear power. The cost of cleaning up nuclear waste is never included in the cost of nuclear power generation, but it is a cost born by all taxpayers nevertheless. An example is the cost of cleaning up the waste at the Hanford nuclear facility alone—in the tens of billions of dollars. No one has yet answered the question of how to safely store or dispose of the waste.

All of our current energy sources damage our environment. They pollute or eliminate our food sources and poison the air we must breathe to stay alive. If we don’t find a way to restore the environmental equilibrium, we will perish. But as the underdeveloped nations raise their living standards, world energy consumption rises. We need to develop an energy source that can exist within our environment without destroying it. Therefore, the third criterion is an environmentally clean energy source.

Availability Equals Opportunity

When oil began gushing from the Spindletop well in Texas in 1901, it heralded the large-scale expansion of our economy. We were one of the few industrialized nations able to reap the maximum benefits from oil because we were one of the few with sufficient internal supplies of oil and natural gas to meet all the energy demands of the first half of the century.

Today, most industrialized nations, including the United States, rely heavily on imported energy for their economic viability. For the past twenty years, the United States has experienced an economic downturn resulting from its oil sources being controlled by other nations. Other countries experienced the problems of foreign oil control long before we did. Japan, for example, has no internal reserves and has to import nearly all of its energy. A desire to have its own oil source was one of the main factors in Japan’s decision to enter into the Second World War. The attack on Pearl Harbor was aimed at destroying the United States’ Pacific fleet so Japan could control the shipping lanes between Indonesia and Japan after they seized the oil-rich islands of Indonesia.

Iraq invaded Kuwait to gain control of its oil, as well as to expand Iraq’s influence in the Middle East. Control of the Kuwaiti oil supply was also the real reason the United States went to war against Iraq in 1991, as most of us know. The Middle East, with its great reserves of oil, continues to pull the economic strings of much of the rest of the world.

Because of the tremendous leverage energy exerts over the economy of the world, the oil-producing nations are able to wield political and economic influence far beyond what their share of the population warrants. The oil-consuming nations are held hostage to their whims, and tensions run high. As the oil resources of the earth are depleted, the Middle Eastern influence will increase, as will the tension, leading to the probability of new wars.

In order to avoid this continual source of conflict, our new energy source should be one that can be equally available to all nations without regard to location. Therefore, our fourth criterion is an energy source that is available to everyone.

Energy Form for the Future

When wood was the world’s fuel, it was in an ideally usable form for the time. It grew nearly everywhere. Travelers walking the trails from place to place did not have to burden themselves by carrying fuel for their fires; the fuel was there when they arrived. They just had to gather it together for the evening fire. It not only provided heat, but delighted the eye with the flames and gave comfort with the scent of wood smoke on the evening air.

As the demands for energy grew, wood became impractical. It was too bulky for easy transport and did not burn hotly enough for iron and steel production unless it was first converted to charcoal. Coal, on the other hand, burned very hot and was reasonably compact. It was much easier to feed a steam boiler by shoveling coal than using wood. When ships turned to steam power, coal could be carried in sufficient quantities to drive them across oceans, an impractical trip using wood.

Oil offered many advantages as an energy form. Its various liquid and gaseous states could be readily stored in tanks, pumped through pipes to any location, and could be introduced into an engine in incredibly small quantities—all impossible with coal. Oil seemed to be the ideal form of energy. For many applications it is still the only practical form, but civilization needs more than a liquid fuel.

As the last century evolved we began converting our energy to a higher and more useful form. This higher form of energy is electricity. A large share of our quality of life depends on this form of energy, and the burning of fuel is only one way of generating it. Electricity is energy in a pure form—silent, available on demand, and with no release of pollutants. It is energy that can be directly converted to any service we want. Electricity is the highest form of energy we have.

Electricity provides us with light, telephones, television, radio, computers, kitchen appliances, factory machinery, heating, and cooling—all available at the flick of a switch. Though there are still some things that seem impossible for electricity to power, like aircraft, who knows what new technology will be revealed in the near future? The electric battery technology available right now could replace 70% of our liquid-fueled automobile travel.

What form should the energy of the future take? Should it be another fuel? Can another fuel ever fill the requirement of being nondepletable and nonpolluting? What form will fit the requirements of tomorrow?

Our fifth criterion is that our energy source must be in a usable form.

Criteria for the Fourth Era

We now have five energy criteria for the Fourth Era. Energy from our new energy source should be:

1. Low cost
2. Nondepletable
3. Environmentally clean
4. Available to everyone
5. In a usable form

These five requirements cover all of the critical aspects of a future energy system but do not define a specific solution. The test of their validity is in their inherent logic and in the authenticity and comprehensiveness of the data used to develop them. The criteria are derived from what history has taught us about bringing prosperity, preserving the earth, and minimizing world tensions. Each broad criterion addresses a generalized goal. As potential solutions are identified, the criteria can be subdivided into more specific requirements that will help us evaluate how a solution might satisfy the broad, general criteria.

With the criteria defined, it is possible to measure how a known energy source might satisfy the requirements or might point in the direction of a new solution. For example, criterion number two specifies that an energy system must be nondepletable. That rules out all stored fuel because stored fuels are finite by nature and all would eventually be depleted if they were used in large quantities. As a result, we need to consider a system that is either continuously replaced or one that is vast enough to last indefinitely. This exemplifies the process by which the criteria can guide us toward a solution without inhibiting the reasonable possibilities.

The criteria may appear simple, but they make the task of finding a suitable energy source for the future extremely difficult. If a way can be found to satisfy all of them, the benefits to our country and the world will be well worth the effort. An energy system that could satisfy these criteria would form the basis for the fourth energy era. While not entirely replacing all other energy sources, it would provide the core and help keep the price of the supplemental sources within reason.