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.
Professor Emeritus of Physics
New York University