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.


Charles Pooley said...

For believers in SSP, maybe a comparison can be made. But for more critical, analytical people, SSP can never work, so nuclear power will not have the competition.

For a fraction of the effort of SSP, a working fusion process probably can be developed.

Al Globus said...

Today, there are dozens of satellites that gather solar energy and transmit small amounts of power to Earth -- these are communication satellites. The power is small because that's all that is needed to transmit information. There have many studies of SSP that show, as conclusively as any study can, that SSP can work -- the issue is how expensive will it be.

Nuclear fusion is slated to receive $400 million in Department of Energy funds next year, about five times as much as SSP has received in 30 years. Fusion has receive government subsidies in the range of tens to hundreds of millions a year for many decades, yet to this day there has never been a fusion reactor that produced more power than it consumed -- something communication satellites do every day.

Charles Pooley said...

Communication satellites are not for creating power. They use solar power to generate microwaves for communication, not power delivery. Also, revenue per KWH from these is of
a different nature than "raw power" contemplated in SSP plans.

I think the cost in money, engineering, and environmental impact make the idea completely infeasible.

Ground based hydrogen fusion (using dueterium and tritium, not helium-3) will eventually be attained and will be a long term solution to the energy reserves for a very long time.