Climate

Space-based solar energy jumps the shark — or fries the shark Star-Wars style

This is a three-fold update on my earlier piece “PG&E signs first-of-a-kind space solar power deal with Solaren. Why?”  I will reprint an email sent to the media from physicist Marty Hoffert that begins:

The PG&E deal is a scam. Pure and simple. We don’t need to study it in detail any more than one needed to study Bernie Madoff’s investment scams.

And I will reprint the remarkably lame response Solaren gave me to the key question of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.

But first, let’s start with this amazing story in Wired, “Hurricane-Killing, Space-Based Power Plant” based on Solaren’s 2006 patent for “altering weather using space-born energy” (see inset figure from patent below, click to enlarge).

[Note to Wired:  You are now running difficult-to-close pop-up ads that are likely to cost you readers unwilling to spend more than 2 seconds trying to see your actual content.]

Many readers of the original post were concerned the device could be used as a weapon.  Not so far-fetched an idea now — at least no more far-fetched than Solaren’s plan to weaken or alter hurricanes from space.

So let’s call this Solaren’s first self-inflicted wound on its own credibility.

Second would be the email response I got from the company in response to my question “Does somebody have a lifecycle CO2 or GHG emissions calculation per kWh given the fuel needed to launch this stuff?”  Cal Boerman, Director Energy Services for Solaren, replied:

Solaren plans to use launch vehicles (Atlas V/Delta IV Heavy Class) that primarily use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for fuels. The resulting emissions are water. These fuels are formed via electrolysis. The Wikipedia definition is: Electrolysis of water is the decomposition of water (H2O) into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen gas (H2) due to an electric current being passed through the water. Solaren assumes the electricity used for this process was generated from clean resources.

Therefore the lifecycle environmental impact per kW-hr is negligible. Also, we do not use solid rocket motors so there is no added pollution from them.

Hope this Helps

Well, It helps me understand how little Solaren has thought about this important issue.  Electrolysis is good for generating pure hydrogen, but it is incredibly electricity intensive (duh) as is making liquid hydrogen for transport.  Presumably a lot of this is done at night when electricity is cheap — if someone can find information on who exactly makes hydrogen for NASA, I’d love to see it.  All I could find is this 2002 article that says it is done near New Orleans using ” technology that releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”  Plus they lose a lot of hydrogen through evaporation from the trucking.  And of course the trucking uses a lot of fossil fuels.

Making hydrogen from renewable-based electrolysis would probably triple the cost of the fuel.  And if Solaren really thinks it can cut launch costs by the factor of 10 or more needed to make this entire effort viable, then it can’t be tripling the cost of the fuel.

Finally, here is the full email from Hoffert:

The PG&E deal is a scam. Pure and simple. We don’t need to study it in detail any more than one needed to study Bernie Madoff’s investment scams. There’s no way to do this any more than there is a way to get 12% return on investment consistently regardless of the economy. Didn’t stop investment in Madoff and it may not stop investment in this harebrained scheme.

There’s no way to get 200 Megawatts from orbit with microwave beaming by 2016 from private sector investment. The infrastructure to do it efficiently with microwaves requires huge structures in orbit and in-space assembly by robots. This is very far from existing technology. Microwaves are the wrong way to start a space solar power business. What we can do in a few hundred kilowatts with laser beaming to PV modules on Earth in a five year time frame because there’s no in-space assembly needed and single-launch vehicles could likely do it.  This could realistically lead to a buildup of a viable orbital and power industry. Even so, we will need major up-front money to test the idea from the feds. The promoters of the PG&E deal idea say they’ll provide a thousand times more power and do it all from the private sector. Might as well say we’re ready to go to the Moon or Mars with private sector financing.   The physics of this is very well understood by the research-active SBSP community.

Too bad, because when it all unravels it will be a major setback for space solar power.  Ken [Caldeira], this is very much like your experience with the company that wants to get rid of CO2 in seawater by a proprietary process that violates basic chemistry. Their CEO says he has special insider knowledge to do this, and so does the company pushing this space solar power deal.  His defense it that he took many companies public. These ideas get as far as they do most because people making business decisions about alternate energy are often scientific illiterates. There are real technological and scientific hurdles, showstoppers, that is;  and there are often potential effective technical and scientific approaches around them.

The problem is not knowing the difference. It’s a much a disaster to overestimate the prospects for near-term profit based on flawed physics as to underestimate the longer-term potential of a new technology based on the opportunities that physics does provide.  As Richard Feynman sagaciously observed, “You can’t fool Mother Nature.”  If only we didn’t have to deal with those idiotic Homo sapiens primates inhabiting this planet. All very depressing because I’m a strong advocate space solar power technology.

Marty Hoffert
Professor Emeritus of Physics
New York University

‘Nuff said.

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12 Responses to Space-based solar energy jumps the shark — or fries the shark Star-Wars style

  1. Leland Palmer says:

    I’m not so sure weather alteration is far-fetched. The upper atmosphere is very thin, and there’s not much mass up there. Large fluxes of microwaves or radio waves beamed into the upper atmosphere can have large heating effects on the atmosphere. So while we may not be able to stop hurricanes, we may be able to steer them. The huge phased array antenna HAARP in Alaska has been rumored to be doing such experiments for years, I think.

    Far-fetched or not, it does not appear to be a good idea. Aren’t we seeing enough unintended consequences, these days? Do we need to add more?

    The way to do space based solar, in the long run, I think, is with a ballistic launcher or space gun from the earth or especially a mass driver from the moon. Electricity cost to orbital velocity from a ballistic launcher is only a dollar or so a pound, and lunar materials could be routinely launched using a mass driver for less than that. Once the ingots of alumnium, steel, silicon, or containers of water or whatever are up in orbit, then they could be processed into useful forms, I think, by automated facilities launched more gently by rocket. The biggest shortage of materials for orbital space colonies would be volatiles, I think, which could be supplied from the earth, while lunar materials could supply all the rest.

    Here’s a reference giving historical background on the idea, which they call a space gun:

    http://www.fas.org/news/iraq/1998/05/980500-bull.htm

    Needless to say, development is required. Wikipedia says that orbits would have to be corrected for the projectiles, perhaps using solid rocket thrusters contained in the projectiles, which would increase cost and complexity. Getting the projectile through the lower atmosphere is the biggest challenge.

    We can do space colonies and space based solar, in the long run, I think, if we live, and survive what appears to be runaway global warming.

    In the short run, this PG&E deal is likely to be some sort of scam, a military scheme to get power to forward deployed troops as Aviation Week reports, a corporate propaganda effort to confuse the issue of global warming, or a true covert weather alteration scheme.

    None of these appear to be good ideas or have anything to do with climate change.

  2. We will see an increase in these magic solutions.

    This strategic ignorance and deliberate denial of the problem is key to continued heavy carbon consumption. The delusion reads “We can keep up our carbon energy because some sort of technical solution will fix everything.”

    This is similar to jumping out of the airplane and expecting to make a parachute on the way down. No one has ever done it, but it is sketched out and technically possible.

  3. Rick C says:

    We already have something that changes the weather, or more accurately, climate if you will. There are 250 million of them in the United States. Even if you clean it up using the latest technology it still spews 19 lbs of CO2 for every gallon of this fuel it consumes. By now you’re way ahead of me. It’s the car. It’s human nature, I suppose, to ignore the things in front of you and the behaviors that contribute to and take from your daily lives and reach for some outlandish idea of why the climate is changing.

  4. turn.org says:

    As Professor Hoffert points out, this project will need major up-front money, but not all of it will come from the feds. California utilities are allowed to charge rate payers for new technology before it’s been implemented, so they have little incentive to invest in technology they know will work. Seconding Richard, PG&E should be spending more time on proven technologies closer to home that we can really count on, not expensive magic fixes in space.

  5. Bill Woods says:

    Hydrogen is a highly-refined form of natural gas.

    Anyway, the Atlas V burns kerosene for its main stage, plus a little hydrogen in its upper stage. A quick look suggests it burns ~900 t of propellant, of which ~1/4 is carbon. So, five launches release ~4 kt of CO2. If the station delivers 200 MW for twenty years, that’s 1.7 TW-hr, so ~2 g_CO2 / MW-hr.

  6. Greg N says:

    I agree Richard, we’ll see an increase in these magical solutions.

    It’s crazy, we humans buck at the thought of paying 0.1 cent in the dollar for boring measures we know will work, yet get excited at dramatic schemes that are almost certain to cost vastly more.

    Are we somehow evolved to prefer big and bold engineering to dull, behind the scenes changes, irrespective the likelihood of success?

  7. Leland Palmer says:

    “California utilities are allowed to charge rate payers for new technology before it’s been implemented, so they have little incentive to invest in technology they know will work.”

    If true, this ticks me off. As a PG&E rate payer, am I now going to be charged for space solar, rather than earth solar, wind, or small scale hydropower?

    Has actual money changed hands, yet? Signing the deal would seem to imply that.

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Has this turned into a SciFi blog?

    Or has the world gone mad…

  9. Alastair Breingan says:

    Re [Note to Wired: You are now running difficult-to-close pop-up ads that are likely to cost you readers unwilling to spend more than 2 seconds trying to see your actual content.]

    If you choose to run the FireFox browser with the Noscript addon you wont have to put up with that junk, and you will be safer surfing too.

    (Basically you choose what runs at what site – so there is a bit of customising in th einitial stages – very easy to use though)

    Keep up the good work

  10. Ronald Brak says:

    NASA makes its hydrogen from natural gas which is the cheapest method, if you don’t include the cost of releasing large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Using electrolysis to make the hydrogen would be more expensive, but the cost of fuel is an insignificant fraction of the total cost of putting payloads in orbit. At best, it would cost about $15,000 per kilogram to put solar power satellites into geostationary orbit using Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. In practice it costs about two thirds more than that. But the launch cost could be roughly halved by using cheaper Russian and Chinese rockets.

    Even with a launch cost of only $5,000 a kilogram, 200 watts of generating capacity per kilogram and a discount rate of 10% the launch cost alone would add about $2.20 per kilowatt-hour to space based electricity. The total cost would be much more than this, making it vastly more expensive than ground based solar. In many countries it would be cheaper to pay people to pedal bicycle generators than to use space based solar power.

  11. red says:

    “if someone can find information on who exactly makes hydrogen for NASA, I’d love to see it.”

    I don’t know off the top of my head, but you mention that the rockets they’re talking about using are the Altas V and Delta IV. Those aren’t NASA’s rockets; they’re United Launch Alliance (consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin), with help from the Air Force. That might help track it down.

    “Making hydrogen from renewable-based electrolysis would probably triple the cost of the fuel. And if Solaren really thinks it can cut launch costs by the factor of 10 or more needed to make this entire effort viable, then it can’t be tripling the cost of the fuel.”

    The cost of fuel is negligible for today’s rockets. Tripling it won’t make much difference.

    [JR: You miss what I said. They can’t use today’s rockets. They need to drop launch costs by more than a factor of 10, probably more than 20. That makes fuel costs quite relevant.]

    Emissions from rockets vary, but it strikes me as a non-problem in the sense that there are so few launches now that they, too, are negligible, and by the time the launch rate goes up (if it ever does) it will be subject to the same cap-and-trade system everything else will be subject to.

    As Leland mentions, there are other lower emission potential means of launch. Right now the market isn’t big enough to make them worth pursuing.

    For SPS and some other applications, a popular scenario is using material launched from the Moon for the bulk of the structures, processing them in orbit. Needless to say, this requires a big investment to start with in Lunar and orbital infrastructure, so that route is a futuristic one. Launch from the Moon is much easier than from Earth, the Moon has volatiles Leland’s looking for (specifically oxygen in lunar regolith for rocket fuel and life support) … but that would all require industrial scale processing. It isn’t going to happen with NASA’s expensive current Moon plans.

    I don’t know about the Solaren proposal, but barring some breakthrough I’d expect to see nearer term SPS-like applications before SPS for general power: power relay satellites (Earth-sat-Earth like comsats), Earth-based power beaming, and SPS to supply high-value power (eg: for other space infrastructure, remote locations on Earth, military bases with IED-vulnerable fuel supply routes, disaster relief areas).

    I could see some small-scale NASA research and in-space demos of SPS and power beaming concepts at this point. I could also see NASA or DOD (etc) saying “I’ll buy X SPS power at Y price” to spur the market. However, NASA probably should concentrate on other things, like more environment monitoring satellites and science, demos of more efficient spacecraft and satellite power-generation and power-using subsystems, more efficient astronaut life-support systems (recycling), monitoring of energy-related processes (winds, grid-effecting space “weather”, etc), fuel-efficient aircraft and aircraft operations, etc. NASA could afford a lot more of this if it got rid of the Shuttle and its Ares rocket plans. This would also allow NASA to use commercial rockets and other commercial services, which would be helpful to the economy (and areas like private comsats which are useful for energy-friendly applications like teleconferencing, telemetering, telecommuting, etc).

    “Might as well say we’re ready to go to the Moon or Mars with private sector financing.”

    We aren’t (we have the technology, but not the market … yet), but we’re getting closer. There are numerous private teams going after the Google Lunar X PRIZE to get a rover or some other mobile device on the Lunar surface. These are robotis, but they’re working on developing markets besides the Google prize. (They might need NASA as a customer, though … we’ll see). Space Adventures has proposed an astronaut trip around the Moon (using Russian government hardware, though).

  12. red says:

    [JR: You miss what I said. They can’t use today’s rockets. They need to drop launch costs by more than a factor of 10, probably more than 20. That makes fuel costs quite relevant.]

    I agree; at those levels the system would probably be more like an airline where fuel costs would be a big factor in the business. If such a cheap system existed, it would probably get a lot more customers than today’s rockets, which would mean that the emissions issue would start to become a real factor for the environment. Hopefully the larger market would enable the launch business to succeed while absorbing the cost of the renewable-based fuel processing.

    All this wouldn’t help Solaren, though, since it would make it much harder (as if it wasn’t hard enough) for their launch vendor to push those launch costs down to the levels Solaren needs.