Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is SSP Competitive with Nuclear?


Peter Sage, in a talk [part one]at the TED conference and elsewhere, points out that nuclear power plants take 5-10 years and cost $4-10 billion to build, from $300 million to as much as $6 billion to decommission [ref], and $4-6 billion for fuel and operation. This does not include waste disposal. We've been building nuclear power plants for 50 years and this industry has received untold billions of dollars in government subsidies.

Now consider that

  • Japan recently announced a $21 billion/20 year program to build a 1 GW space solar power (SSP, aka SBSP) system. The dollar figure is a target, not an estimate.
  • After two years of analysis and a couple million dollars, Space Energy Inc. believes it can build a 1GW SSP system for $16 billion.
  • Perhaps more important, PG&E -- a major California utility -- announced a deal with Solaren Corp. to begin purchasing 200 MW of space solar power around 2016 -- seven years from now.

It appears that the most expensive nuclear plants are expected to cost about as much as the least expensive SSP systems. As many incorrectly believe that SSP is a thousand times more expensive than current systems, this is a revelation.

There are a couple of issues to consider in this comparison:

  • Nuclear power plant costs are well known.
  • SSP costs are estimates, and estimates of new space system costs are usually low.
  • Nuclear power plants can pay for fuel and decommissioning out of revenues.
  • Almost all of the costs of SSP are upfront and must be financed.

However, with nuclear power plants we have fifty years of experience telling us costs are not likely to drop very much. The SSP estimates are for the first system, and costs will almost certainly drop a great deal for the second and even more for subsequent systems. Furthermore, SSP has received very little government help, perhaps $80 million over 30 years. Nuclear received, for example, $13 billion in loan guarantees just a few years ago, and fusion research receives roughly $400 million in Department of Energy funding a year.

When considering building new energy plants, SSP looks, very roughly -- say a factor of two or three, about as good as nuclear power from a strictly financial point of view. However, SSP

  • is a new technology with huge growth potential.
  • involves no fuel, much less radioactive fuel.
  • produces no operational wastes.
  • is all but invulnerable to terrorist attack.
  • is generally environmentally far more friendly than nuclear.

SSP has received almost no government assistance. It could use government research and development, help allocating frequencies for power transmission, help getting land for ground antenna, and perhaps even a prize system.

If you think SSP deserves more government help, email Steven Chu, the head of the Department of Energy, at and let him know.

Bottom line: SSP may be, very roughly, competitive with nuclear for new energy plants now.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Sensible Space Program

NASA's human space flight program budget for 2010 is about $10 billion (see NASA budget). The Obama administration asked a commission to look at what could be done within that budget, and the Augustine report came out with a number of options. However, only two of those options can, apparently, be accomplished for $10 billion/year -- neither of which does more than operate the International Space Station (ISS) and build a new launcher with no funded missions. No human trips to the Moon, asteroids, Mars, or anywhere else in the next decade or two. The commission then listed a number of possibilities that could be accomplished for $13 billion/year. Unfortunately, we're going bankrupt and really shouldn't increase non-essential spending.

If the human space flight program can't do much for $10 billion a year, then maybe it's time to look elsewhere for space development. We are just finishing the ISS at a total cost of something like $100 billion, so it would be silly to throw it away. Fortunately, the ISS 'only' costs about $2 billion/year, plus money to pay the Russians or American private companies to fly astronauts and equipment to and fro once the space shuttle is retired next year, say another $1 billion/year. Well utilized, the ISS could potentially produce useful biomedical research (there is at least one medication derived from ISS research that is starting trials), materials research, and technology test beds such as the recently cancelled space solar power demonstration project.

If the ISS costs $3 billion per year to operate, that leaves $7 billion/year for something else. The commission tells us this isn't enough to send a very small number of people to the Moon or Mars, so we should either reduce government expenditures or find something useful that $7 billion could do. I have proposed a $21 billion prize program to develop space solar power. This program is guaranteed to deliver at least 21 space power satellites or our money back. If successful, three years of money to not send a small number of people beyond Earth orbit may get space solar power up and running. This would have a revolutionary impact on energy and climate change problems as space solar power is very clean and available in gigantic quantities for the next few billion years.

Which do you think would benefit America, or for that matter, the world, more?

Finally, here's the kicker. A major reason NASA can't put people on the Moon or Mars with $10 billion a year is that transportation (launch) from Earth to orbit is expensive, several thousand dollars per pound. Launch is expensive because there aren't very many, fewer than 100 per year. Consider what a car would cost if the whole planet took only 100 car rides per year, total. If space solar power were successful, it would create a profitable market for many thousands of launches per year and the price would come down -- then NASA could put people on the Moon and Mars for much less than $10 billion per year.

So you don't even have to choose, you just have to be optimistic and believe that we can do pretty much anything the laws of physics allow if we really want to. America has the most capable aerospace industry in the world, some of the most dynamic entrepreneurs, and a desire for energy and a clean environment. With space solar power we have a shot, not a certainty, but a shot, at drastically reducing carbon emissions, becoming a major energy exporter, and a few years later putting people on the Moon and Mars. We just need to put $21 billion in escrow for a few years and pay it out if someone delivers on the dream. If they don't we get our money back.

Now that's a deal.