Sun Power: The Global Solution

for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 9 for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 9

Sun Power

by Ralph Nansen

Copyright 1995 by Ralph Nansen, reproduced with permission

Chapter 9: A Call to Action for the United States

The question still remains: “What should we do now?”

My answer to that question is clear and unequivocal. The United States should proceed immediately, with all possible speed, to develop and deploy the solar power satellite energy system as the energy source for the twenty-first century.

The first half of this book addressed the importance of energy to the development of civilization and the contribution made by each source. Of particular importance was the economic growth associated with the nations that first made use of each new energy source. It also identified solar power satellites as the energy system for the future. The remainder of the book addresses why and how we, as a nation, should go about developing solar power satellites.

The Case for Developing Solar Power Satellites

Some of the very reasons for not developing the solar power satellite concept are also the best reasons to develop it.

First of all, if we were to commit to its development it would give us national purpose. We would no longer be wondering what to do the next time we run short of oil or a megalomaniac threatens to take control of a major oil-producing nation. We would be concentrating on a single common goal—not a generalized wish for energy independence, but a specific solution. It would be a greater task than going to the moon in the 1960s, but it would focus the nation’s talents, its energies, and its imagination in much the same way as did that lofty accomplishment. It would challenge our young people to take their place in history building a future for themselves and their children. They would become known as a generation of visionaries who stood at the crossroads of history and chose the pathway of growth rather than stagnation.

It would utilize the talents of scientists, engineers, and companies who have been working on military hardware, which is no longer a number one priority with the ending of the cold war. It would develop a new high-level technological base, which is so important to a highly developed nation like the United States in order to maintain our competitive place in the world economy. It would create a massive number of jobs that would bring growth to our economy.

When the energy starts to flow from the sky it would bring a continuing stream of wealth into our country. We would no longer be dependent on foreign oil. We would no longer participate in the massive exploitation of the earth’s resources. We would eliminate the need to burn huge quantities of fossil fuels and thus reverse the deterioration of the earth’s atmosphere. It would dramatically extend the life of precious oil for use as a petrochemical and fuel for airplanes and ships, so it could last far into the future. It would build the infrastructure of space development, which would open the space frontier for massive commercial development.

Traumatic changes would certainly affect some existing industries. The coal mining industry would be directly impacted as new solar power satellites came on-line and the old coal plants could be shut down and dismantled. This would not happen overnight, but rather over an extended period of time, giving the labor force an opportunity to acquire new jobs in the expanding economy. Companies would have time to branch out and enter new facets of the energy business as coal mining closed down. Oil companies would also face a shrinking market, but their products would have the advantage of maintaining a viable market for a much longer period of use. Their product base could be modified to encompass the new evolving energy field, which will include solar cells, batteries, and many other components.

Necessity Arouses American Creativity

During the second World War, the nation faced many crises, but two particular stories are worth recounting here. When war broke out, most of our natural rubber supply was cut off. Without rubber, our modern war machine was literally immobilized. Rubber was also needed for automobile tires. The civilian population running the factories would soon be left stranded without the means of getting to their jobs. Something had to be done about the rubber crisis. Several different approaches were developed that might have worked, but the rubber producers were pulling in different directions.

The situation was deteriorating rapidly and a solution had to be found if we were not to go down to defeat by default. Leadership finally surfaced in the form of the War Production Board. They looked at the options and selected Buna-S as the synthetic rubber to be developed. All effort was directed to the development of that one process. They started building production facilities even before knowing all that was required. The entire industry turned around, and within months the problems were solved, production began, and the allied nations rolled to victory on tires built of synthetic rubber produced as a result of a focused national effort to solve a problem.

Another classic example is the Manhattan Project. This project was initiated during World War II by President Roosevelt and was cloaked in the greatest secrecy. Its goal was to develop the atomic bomb. At the time, it was by far the most challenging of all scientific and engineering endeavors ever attempted. It called for scientific invention and sophistication that was mind boggling. The manufacturing accomplishments to separate uranium 235 from uranium 238 were success stories of the highest caliber just by themselves. In addition, new materials had to be developed. Teflon was first made in 1938 and was developed into a useful material by the Manhattan Project. The very best minds of the nation were called to the task. The greatest obstacle was the secrecy lid, which prevented the normal free exchange of ideas so necessary for rapid development. Nevertheless, they succeeded. The world would never be quite the same again, but then it never is after a giant step has been taken. Humanity must continue to move forward if we are not to become a footnote in nature’s history like the dinosaur.

“One Small Step for Man . . .”

A more recent example of the dynamic benefits of focusing a country’s talent on a specific goal was the history-making event of putting a man on the moon. In 1961, the United States was in the midst of a cold war. While the United States was plodding along on a low-priority satellite launch program, Russia astonished the world by launching Sputnik I. On October 4, 1957, the new frontier of space was opened. While we watched our rockets sputter and burn on the launch pads, the USSR followed Sputnik with more satellites and finally dealt a humiliating blow when Yuri A. Gagarin orbited the earth on April 12, 1961.

Castro was firmly entrenched in Cuba, and the Bay of Pigs affair had left the stink of defeat and disgrace upon us. The rest of the world was asking “What has happened to this once great nation?” We were embarrassed and ashamed. What could be done that would raise us above ourselves and make us forget our failures? What could give us back our pride? What could be done to give focus and purpose to the American people? The cold war was raging, but a hot war was certainly not the answer. It needed to be something that would unite our spirits, stimulate our economy, and allow us to stand tall again and look the rest of the world in the eye and say “Yes, we are Americans!”

In the spring of 1961 President John F. Kennedy rallied the nation to muster its talents, its money, and its people to focus upon a goal. A goal of the highest ideals. An objective that would be very difficult to achieve. One that many thought impossible. An achievement that could make a people proud again. A target that could focus the technical talent of the nation. One which, without resorting to war or war machines, could catapult the nation onto a technology level well beyond any other country on earth. It was just twenty days after Alan Sheppard made America’s first brief 15-minute manned flight into space that Kennedy stood before Congress and said, “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and,” he paused, “none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Engineers and scientists took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and said “Yes, sir.” Few believed it was possible in the time available. Many voiced open criticism. But the challenge and goal were clear. The nation rallied. The clock started ticking. No one had a clear understanding of how it was going to be done, only that it would be done.

Teams of contractors were selected, colleges and universities were canvassed for engineers, new factories were built, test sites were activated, Cape Canaveral crawled with workers, and the designers sweated over their drawing boards. Research labs were hard pressed to find solutions to many new problems. Weight was so critical that not an ounce of excess could be allowed. The accuracy of the guidance systems requirements drove the developers into inventing whole new technologies. Workers had to learn how to handle large quantities of liquid hydrogen, which had to be stored at minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. The term “cryogenics” entered our vocabulary.

Soon the milestones began to tick by, but there were some rough spots. There were test failures. Engines blew up. Propellant tanks burst. Tempers flared over the decision of whether to rendezvous in earth orbit or in lunar orbit. The ultimate agony came on January 27, 1967, with the deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 4 capsule during ground tests. The program was staggered, but a commitment is a commitment and the work pressed on. Nobody said it would be easy.

In December of 1968 we were back on schedule when Frank Borman read a Christmas message to us from aboard Apollo 8 as he and his crew circled the moon. But time for the ultimate goal was beginning to run out and the decisions were getting tougher and tougher. I remember when a three hundred million dollar gamble had to be taken to salvage the Apollo 10 flight schedule.

Part of my job on the Saturn V program was design manager for the fuel tanks on the S-IC first stage. It was five days before the scheduled launch and the Saturn/Apollo stack sat waiting on the pad. The first stage tank for the Apollo 10 mission had already been fueled with RP-1 when an error by a technician at the launch site caused the flow of pressurizing gas to be accidentally shut off. The upper bulkhead on the first-stage fuel tank collapsed. The 33-foot diameter welded aluminum dome had been sucked inward like a deflated balloon—a major disaster that could have lead to a delay of the moon landing by six months, moving the schedule into the next decade. The technician, hearing the crush of the collapsing structure, turned the pressurizing gas back on and was rewarded with the deafening boom of the bulkhead being reinflated. Why it held is a question I still ask myself, but it did. We called together a team of engineers, NASA experts, and an Air Force materials specialist from around the country via teleconference calls. The damage was assessed by working through the night, and tests were run on spare parts. After the options were reviewed, we made the decision to re–pressure-test the tank, with the fuel still on board, while the assembled rocket sat in lonely majesty, bathed in light on the pad.

It was a huge risk. If the tank had burst, the detonation would have been heard around the world. Not the sound, but the doubts it would have raised about America’s ability to build reliable launch vehicles and to reach the moon by the end of the decade. The Soviet Union was still in the race. Their rockets had exploded, hidden from the world, but they were still in the competition with rockets even bigger than Saturn V.

It was a tough decision. If we were wrong we would probably not meet the goal of landing on the moon before the end of the decade. On the positive side we could conduct the test with all personnel evacuated from the launch stand so that there were no lives involved in making the test and we could be absolutely confident that if the tank passed a proof test that it would not fail during the launch. Another factor was if the rocket had been disassembled, the delay would have actually cost more than the $300 million loss of the Saturn/Apollo vehicle if the tank had failed. I’ll never forget sweating through one of the most traumatic moments of my life. Luckily, as it turned out, we were right: the test was successful and Apollo 10 lifted off on schedule.

Two months later Apollo 11 lifted off with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins aboard. Who will ever forget the thrilling moment on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon and said it for all of us. “One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” Eight years and three months had passed since President Kennedy sent man off on the greatest quest in history. Truly an impossible dream became reality.

Our nation was proud again. The world once more knew that when the US rallied to a common cause, we would succeed. Our technology once again leap-frogged to the forefront of the world. The technological benefits alone have more than paid for the monetary cost of this great human adventure.

The three endeavors cited above all have the same characteristics: a driving national need, a total focusing of effort toward one goal, total commitment of available talent and money to achieve that goal; and, most important, complete success. Only with total commitment can we hope to accomplish our goals, without it we fail. We failed in Vietnam where we went with reservations and limitations toward ends that were not worthy of our dedication. We failed to achieve President Nixon’s goal of “energy independence” established after the 1973-74 oil embargo because it was a general goal, without focus, and without commitment to a defined plan of action.

Focusing National Effort — The Key to Success

Solving our energy, environmental, and economic dilemma is certainly worthy of our total commitment. The solar power satellite solution can focus our national purpose on a single effort that will give us “energy independence” by providing a way of directly converting energy from the sun to power our future. It will utilize the technology investment we have already made in space. It will provide economical energy from a source we cannot deplete. It will bring energy to the earth in a form that can be used directly without polluting our environment. It can be expanded to fulfill the needs of all people on the earth as they develop. It will not subject the people of this country to the dragging chains of everlasting inflation driven by fuel costs. It is not a machine of war, yet it would raise our technology capabilities as did the Saturn/Apollo program. It could utilize the capability of the aerospace industry as they turn away from building weapons.

To bring about a decision to develop the solar power satellites will not be easy. I know the frustration and sense of futility, along with those few other dedicated people, as we continue to promote the solar power satellite concept with government agencies who do not want to have anything disturb their comfortable jobs, congressmen who are much more concerned with political maneuvering than accomplishing anything useful, businesses that are only concerned about next quarter’s profit and protecting their current product line. It will require the leadership of the President, appropriate government agencies, and Congress. It will take the backing of the people of America and support from our industries.

During the period that this option was being actively studied, I was one of several individuals who made many public addresses on the concept and was always impressed by the strong positive response of the audience. There were always many questions about different issues, but almost without exception, the reaction was “Why don’t we get on with it?” Why not indeed.

Most people were surprised to learn that there was a possible solution to our energy problem. Unfortunately, the average citizen is not in a position to make the decision to proceed. In the ensuing years little activity in this direction has been carried out, and the concept has drifted away from public view.

Because of the fact that it takes decades of normal development and implementation to bring new energy systems on-line to the point where they can make a significant contribution, it is urgent that the development be started soon, or we will be caught in another round of spiraling costs. It may already be too late for a smooth transition.

The cost of a high-technology energy system, like solar power satellites, breaks down into two major parts. First is the cost of development. This includes the design, fabrication, and testing of all the different elements. Involved would be such items as launch vehicles, space habitats, equipment to perform space assembly, the initial satellite, and the design and assembly of the ground rectenna.

The second cost is the fabrication of additional satellites needed to satisfy the energy requirements of the future. These funds would be provided in a manner similar to any other new power plant purchased by electric utility companies today. The pricing of electric power provides for repayment of these costs plus a reasonable profit.

It is the initial development cost that presents the problem. The cost of developing the technology for the solar power satellite as a power plant is not so much a problem, but rather the infrastructure to launch and assemble it. Much of the infrastructure is unique because it will be located in a remote site. To date there has been no need for a transportation system capable of launching solar power satellites, so it does not yet exist. This is the single greatest impediment to the development of solar power satellites. In the past, costs of this nature were funded by government investment, such as the funding of the railroads as they moved west across the nation. It is not unreasonable for the government to fund the development cost of the required infrastructure as a national investment in our future. The magnitude of the development for the necessary infrastructure, beyond what is being developed by the Space Station, would be considerably less than the Saturn/Apollo lunar landing program.

An important lesson was learned during the moon landing program as the costs were controlled within the original target. This was due to the fact that the original completion schedule was maintained at any cost, and the people working on the program were dedicated to achieving that goal. As a result, solutions were found when a problem developed or another team was brought in to solve it. Time was money. Any significant change in one segment of the effort that delayed another segment meant that huge blocks of manpower were being wasted. A delay in the program of a single day cost ten million dollars. Usually government programs experience dramatic overruns. One reason is due to annual funding restrictions forced by Congress, with the result being programs that are often stretched out much longer than necessary, greatly increasing the total bill. Actual costs are much easier to control when sufficient funds are provided to maintain the schedule. This is why the Saturn/Apollo program was accomplished on time and within the original cost estimate.

Reaping the Benefits

If we were to make the decision as a nation to move ahead and dedicate ourselves to developing the solar power satellite as our next major energy source, what would be the benefits?

Let us select the option to pay as we go for developing the space-oriented infrastructure. The commercial utility industry could pay for most of the development costs for the power generation part of the system (the satellite and rectenna) through their contribution to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Funds for the space infrastructure development could be raised by charging a surtax on imported oil, applying a small tax on energy systems that pollute the atmosphere, and applying some moneys from the military budget.

The government sources of money would actually have a positive long-term benefit. The tax on imported oil would be an incentive to US producers, the tax on polluting systems would be an incentive to expand nonpolluting systems, and the diversion of military funds would help keep the aerospace industry strong and ready if needed in the future for expanded military applications.

Suppose we set a firm time schedule for achieving the delivery of the first useful electric power. The goal of the lunar program had been a little over eight and a half years. A goal of ten years would not be unreasonable for the solar power satellite program.

With those decisions made, what happens next?

Development of the satellite design details would require a large number of scientists and engineers. It would also need technicians, lab workers, manufacturing people to develop the new fabrication techniques, test personnel, and inspectors. Much of the development testing could be accomplished on the ground by testing a ground test prototype of the power generation system and wireless power transmission from one location on the ground to a receiver a short distance away. The solar technology would be based on the arrays developed for terrestrial solar systems.

The major task during the development phase would be a new fully reusable space freighter to replace the costly Space Shuttle. Other space transportation vehicles for moving parts from one orbit to another would need to be designed and built. These projects would require a work force similar to several modern airplane companies.

The design and development of the assembly base to be operated in space would require a new breed of workers. Skilled laborers, like those needed to build the pipeline in the Alaskan North Slope oil fields, would have to learn how to build giant structures in space using robotic assembly tools. Development of the ground receiving antenna would require a large number of people familiar with heavy construction, earth moving, and field assembly.

As the program moves from the design and development phase into manufacturing of the initial satellite, the majority of jobs would be involved in building and operating the space transportation system, fabricating the components and subassemblies for the satellite, and constructing the ground receiving antenna. Only a relatively small crew would be required for assembly in space. When I say small, that is only relative to the total work force required, but quite large by any space operations we have today. The total number required will be dependent on how many will be required to monitor the robotic assembly machines and to handle cargo transfer between the heavy lift launch vehicles and orbit transfer vehicles carrying cargo from low earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit.

This project would grow to provide hundreds of thousands of jobs in many different disciplines, encompassing the entire spectrum from highly educated scientists to hourly laborers. The number of jobs generated in periphery fields to support this work force would reach into the millions.

Even though the basic technology required to develop the satellite and its support systems is known in some form today, the application of the technology into an economically successful commercial power plant would require extensive development efforts. This effort would be directed at achieving total understanding of principles, new and simpler techniques for applying them, low-cost automated manufacturing approaches, and extremely high reliability.

For example, this would include the development of lightweight, low-cost, high-efficiency, and long-lived solar cells. Much of this technology has already been developed for terrestrial solar power systems. The new requirement will be to apply the unique criteria associated with the space environment. This technology would in turn make solar cells for terrestrial use much more affordable and practical in many locations. Solar cell power modules used to supply the power for industrial developments in space would be very economical.

Development of the wireless power transmitter would elevate the technology available for radar and other wireless systems to staggering heights. Power switching systems and power processors would reach new levels of simplicity, low cost, and reliability. Routine operation of reusable space transportation vehicles would necessitate development of new and better high-temperature materials, long-life engines, lightweight reusable cryogenic insulation systems, and expanded knowledge of how to live and work in space.

These are but a few obvious examples. If our experience on the Saturn/Apollo program was typical, the real technology benefits to the country—other than the accomplishment of the goal—are often surprising and unexpected. Who would have thought that the requirement for reduced weight and increased capability needed for electronic systems would have opened the way to $10 pocket calculators and personal computers? Even the microprocessors that control so much of our machinery, including our automobiles, are a result of these developments.

The Saturn/Apollo program provided much of the basic knowledge that supports our modern military activities as well. It displayed to the rest of the world our technological capabilities in a clear and dramatic way. The solar power satellite can do the same and even more effectively.

The real potential, however, is the ability to add generating capacity as the demands for energy grow. After meeting new energy requirements we could start replacing the existing fossil fuel plants and obsolete nuclear plants. A large percentage of the current power plants in the country are wearing out, and maintenance costs are accelerating as they reach the end of their useful life. They could be replaced with solar power satellites, thus eliminating the demand for fossil fuels as our major energy source and starting the process to clean up our atmosphere. Once this is done, a more natural growth can occur. With the availability of ample low-cost electricity, the move could be made to replace a large share of the transportation requirements with electric power vehicles as well.

With abundant, low-cost, pollution-free electricity, we would be able to build giant desalinization plants to make fresh water from the sea and eliminate water shortages in much of our nation and the world. In other areas, far from the sea, we could use the energy to recycle waste water to high purity and use it over and over again to supplement nature’s cycle.

Freeing the People of the World

As great as the benefits are for the United States, much of the rest of the world has even more to gain. Without sufficient energy to provide the necessities of life, people in the developing nations have no hope of improving their lives.

Many of these people are shackled with the bonds of poverty. Bonds stronger than prison bars and more binding than oppressive governments, for even if prison doors are thrown open and governments allow freedom of choice, what good is freedom if there is nothing to eat, no roof to give protection from the elements, no money or possessions? Survival, by necessity, then becomes the most basic human drive. When the problem of seeking food and shelter dominates all effort, freedom is only a word—without meaning—to people who are starving.

In our crowded world where it is no longer possible for everyone to grow or gather their own food and build their own shelters, impoverished people are faced with two possibilities if they are to realize any kind of freedom.

First they look to the prosperous people of the world and ask for help. If that help is a gift of food or temporary shelter it is soon gone and with it their fleeting freedom. At best a transient break in their lives, the gift does little to help them achieve permanent relief from the bonds of poverty. Even with the best intentions, the wealthy people of the world cannot give enough to meet the demands of all the poor; sadly there are too many.

The second option is much more difficult, because it cannot be given as a lasting gift—it must be earned. Political freedom is often won in the voting booth or with revolution, but such freedom does not guarantee that there is enough to eat and sufficient resources and time to make freedom of choice possible—that can only be achieved by increasing productivity. This requires ample energy and the moral commitment of the people to put it to work.

When there were but a few people on the earth, nature supplied all the needs of everyone directly. There was abundant food, water, and raw materials for all their uses whenever it was needed. As mankind multiplied there was still enough for everyone, but it became necessary to cultivate the fields and raise livestock in order to have a sufficient supply. As human knowledge expanded, so did people’s ability to enhance their surroundings and to improve their standard of living. More time was available after performing the basic needs of survival and therefore freedom of choice became a reality.

On the other hand, for the impoverished peoples and nations who did not increase productivity as their population expanded, life became more desperate. They could no longer gather food and water and fuel in sufficient quantities to sustain everyone. They are the truly enslaved and can only hope to experience true freedom in this world through learning and application of how to use energy to multiply their abilities to provide food and lodging beyond the basic need for survival. Only then will they have the time to know they are free.

The greatest gifts that affluent people of the world can give to free the impoverished are knowledge, tools, guidance, and the energy to make it all possible. For in the words of one university professor, “Freedom is a society of plenty.” Only ample energy can make that possible.