Thursday, August 9, 2007

Energy From Space Luncheon

On August 8th I attended a luncheon organized by the Marshall Institute. The speakers were Martin Hoffert and John Mankins. Fortunately, the Marshall Institute already has put up the slides used by Marty Hoffert and John Mankins.

Hoffert emphasized a number of points. There is an urgent bipartisan issue in taking a rational, objective look at our technological civilization continuing to burn carbon based fuels for energy. Global warming is one factor. The fact that such fuels are quite limited is another factor.

Hoffert noted that terrestrial wind and solar power are limited by storage. Denmark has the most energy obtained by wind percentage wise of any nation. They are situated quite close to neighboring Norway which uses hyrdoelectric power for its energy. What Denmark does is, when the wind is blowing sufficiently for a surplus to be generated, exports via electricity energy to Norway. Hydroelectric facilities in Norway pump water up into reservoirs. The water is released when Denmark's winds are producing less or even no energy. Hoffert suggested other places could use compressed air for energy storage.

Hoffert made an interesting observation about engineering and accounting. Enron, he said, was all about creative accounting, not creative engineering. Even if they had been honest, they did not advance energy technology. I will add that people in the United States have become more isolated from people different from them in recent decades. One Congressional staffer told me during the AIAA's Congressional Visits Day in April that they needed more people like your typical AIAA member working in Congress full time because people in Congress did not really understand science and technology and how the fields worked. One consequence of this isolation is that, for example, creative accountants can make proposals to increase profits that neglect to consider the downside of their proposals. Yes, you can fire inarticulate engineers but the consequences down the road are likely to be negative. This argues for engineers to learn more than just basic engineering as well.

Hoffert noted that early proposals for solar power satellites depended upon technologies that are far more primitive than ones we have today. For example, back in the 1970s, transmitting antennas required heavy, complex klystron tube based technology. Since then electronics has progressed to the point where much more flexible solid state technology may be used, thus simplifying the transmission. He also noted that the Carter administration invested heavily in SPS. The Reagan administration terminated this effort. At the time the proposal looked wildly expensive because of the limited technology available.

European aerospace engineers have proposed an interesting concept. They advocate a system where there would be laser transmission directly to the Sahara where solar cells would be generating power anyway because of naturally occurring sunlight. Such a system could provide electricity up to one terawatt at a cost of $0.05/kwh.

John Mankins made a number of points:

  • The world's population is growing with people dissatisfied living below the poverty line.
  • International competition for energy is becoming a security concern.
  • There is a growing need for considerable carbon neutral energy.
  • Keeping a long term scientific and technological society going is a major challenge.
  • Attention to the energy problem is growing.
  • In the past, while technically feasible, energy from space was not economically feasible. Early plans would have required $300B to $1T to be spent before the first SPS came online.

Mankins noted that there have been many changes since 1980:

  • Solar cells are much more efficient.
  • Solid state transmission is now possible.
  • Robotics has advanced.
  • A radically different, modular technology is now possible.
  • Making synthetic fuels partly dependent on solar is now possible.

A reporter asked if Congress was showing interest. Mankins replied that support was not currently well organized but was persistent. Support was better organized in the past.

Hoffert commented that SPS needs a champion. DOE needs a champion because the department is dominated by chemical and mechanical engineers who do not think of the space option. NASA doesn't think about getting energy from space. I will comment here that, once again, we see engineers sticking to their specialties, not looking at the broader picture and learning to work with people different from themselves. Hoffert added that we are far behind other countries in science and technical education, especially for leaders. Once again we see narrowness triumphing over broader, healthier ways of doing things. He pointed out that the Internet was initially developed for 20 years under DARPA and an additional 10 under the NSF before the Wall Street Journal noticed it.

This was an interesting luncheon. Once again, I saw many of the usual suspects one finds at DC events relating to space. Among them were Paul Werbos, Gary Oleson, Jeff Foust, Anne Ellis and J. P. Stevens of AIA. The last time I saw John Mankins was at a Hillary Clinton issues and policies breakfast. It was interesting seeing him give a talk for the Marshall Institute at the Capitol Hill Club. The club is a Republican bastion right next to Congress.

The energy from space community is getting some attention. It will be interesting to see if it gathers more support than in the past. The fact that a demonstrator project for only $100 M seems to be possible will be a major improvement over the past. Back in the 1970s many ideas (SPS and O'Neill colonies among them) were pushed and attracted some attention. The realities of technology at the time stopped many a dream. One truly limiting factor was the space shuttle. Instead of giving us cheap, reliable access to space, it became an extremely expensive, unreliable vehicle that could only be flown a few times a year rather than weekly.