25 – Space Solar Power and America’s Energy Future (Part 6)


Series recap:


This series began, over a year ago, at the conclusion of the National Security Space Office’s (NSSO) 2007 ad hoc study of space-based solar power or, as most refer to it, space solar power (SSP). My primary involvement with the NSSO study focused on the spacefaring logistics necessary to support a demonstration SSP platform. As such, it is appropriate to note that I do not profess to be an expert on the technologies that form the basis of the SSP system or those of competing alternative energy sources.


While attending the study’s summary conference in September 2007, several presenters focused on the underlying rationale for the SSP study—to address the world’s growing energy insecurity. Neither the study nor the comments of these presenters were breaking new ground, however. Such rationale had been at the core of the SSP arguments since the 1970’s. Regardless, it was apparent that while the passion for SSP was reemerging, the fact-driven case arguing for SSP had not yet emerged. To this end I turned my attention with the start of this series on Space Solar Power and America’s Energy Future.


In Part 5, I reported on my initial efforts to address the first priority of energy sufficiency and energy availability. I focused on non-renewable oil, coal, and natural gas—what I refer to as “easy energy”—because these energy sources account for the vast majority of the United States’ and the world’s energy supplies.


My initial research quickly brought to my attention the fact that most forward-looking energy sufficiency and availability projections only looked 20-30 years into the future. Clearly, this was insufficient from an energy policy planning perspective. I pushed my planning horizon out to 2100. When I examined the sufficiency of easy energy with this time horizon, it was very clear that even optimistic estimates of oil, coal, and natural gas resources would not get the U.S. and the world to 2100 with stable energy sources. By 2100, the U.S. and the world would, necessarily, be running primarily on sustainable energy sources. Part 5 ended with these conclusions:


1. Growth in world per capita energy needs, spurred by expectations of an improving standard of living as a sign of political and economic success, will dramatically increase needed energy supplies throughout this century.


2. An energy planning horizon of 20-30 years, when non-renewable hydrocarbon fuels will continue to provide the vast majority of the world’s energy, neither adequately anticipates nor responds to the world’s energy situation later this century.


3. By the end of the century, the world will need to fully replace nearly all production of non-renewable hydrocarbons with renewable or nuclear alternatives, with a total world energy production capacity 3-4 times that of today.


4. Undertaking a transformation from primarily non-renewable to primarily renewable/nuclear energy production is a necessity, if this model’s projections of easy energy reserves are reasonably accurate.


5. The stage is now set to compare space solar power against terrestrial renewable and nuclear energy sources, not in terms of economics, but in terms of the magnitude of the energy needed to meet future world needs.


Part 5 set the stage for the comparison of space solar power against terrestrial renewable and nuclear energy sources—what are referred to as sustainable energy. This effort was undertaken in the form of a stand-alone white paper that updated the previous efforts before continuiung with the comparison. This has now been completed with a 126-page white paper titled: The End of Easy Energy and What to Do About It.” This white paper is available on my web site on the spacefaring resources page. The Introduction, Preface, and Executive Summary of the paper are excerpted below. A two-page point paper summarizing the white paper, America’s Energy Future is at Risk without Space Solar Power,” is also available.


The two major points drawn from this effort are:


1. By the end of the century, if not decades earlier, almost all of the United States and the world’s energy must come from sustainable energy sources.


2. If the United States is to maintain close to its current per capita energy availability—the key to its standard of living and economic prosperity—then SSP will be needed to fill the shortfall left by terrestrial sustainable energy sources. Developing SSP is a necessity that should not be delayed.


===== Excerpt =====


The End of Easy Energy and What to Do About It


James Michael Snead, P.E.




Food, shelter, water, security, and energy are fundamental human needs. The primary benefit of human civilization, and a principle purpose of government, is to organize human efforts to reliably supply these fundamental needs.

On-demand energy in the form of electricity and modern fuels is the lifeblood of modern civilization. It amplifies human efforts enabling humans to produce more, travel farther, communicate more broadly and quickly, and live at a higher standard of living than is possible through human efforts alone. Temporarily disrupt the supply of energy and the technological clockwork of modern civilization quickly grinds to a halt. Put forth the prospect of the long-term disruption of energy supplies and the consequences are deemed so undesirable that nations will go to war to secure their energy supplies.


Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the world is beginning the fifth, and likely final, century of easy non-renewable energy. Beginning in Europe in the early 1600’s, the growth of civilization—in particular, the concentration of population in urban areas in cold climates—outstripped the affordable renewable energy supply of wood. Coal, recognized from the beginning as a non-renewable resource, began to be mined to fill the gap between consumer demand and affordable renewable energy supplies. Technology advancement in mining, especially the introduction of the first steam engines to pump water from deep mines, provided coal producers with a production cost advantage over wood harvesting. As a result, the era of “easy,” non-renewable energy began, expanding to include oil and natural gas in the mid-1800’s.


The benefits of easy energy are all around us. Easy energy has literally powered the rise of modern civilization by increasing human productivity and, especially, freeing a large percentage of the population from the toil of pre-modern agriculture and primitive biomass energy recovery (e.g., chopping wood and gathering fallen dead wood). Those nations that have prevailed in the use of easy energy are today’s leading nations. Developing nations, containing billions of people still living in energy impoverishment, clearly recognize the linkage between modern energy availability and economic development. Quite understandably, they are increasing their supplies of easy energy to stimulate economic development, raise their standard of living, and increase the social and political stability of their nations.


The readily apparent consequence of this on-going expansion of modern civilization is that the worldwide demand for easy energy is outstripping the resources of nature’s gifts of oil, coal, and natural gas, just as happened with wood four centuries earlier. Consequently, these non-renewable energy resources will likely be exhausted this century—perhaps within the lifetime of today’s young adults, certainly within the lifetime of today’s young children.

Having foreknowledge of this coming end of easy energy, what path should the United States and the world prepare to follow? Should a primary reliance on non-renewable easy energy be blindly followed without any substantial and determined investment in developing replacement sources of sustainable energy? We have comparable sustainable objectives for food, water, housing, and security. Why not for energy?


This paper’s exploration of our shared energy future is based on the presumption that the United States and most other nations desire assured, sustainable energy supplies with, if possible, substantial energy independence. Delving into the specifics necessary to understand the implications of what it will take to achieve this desired energy future, this paper aims to identify what sustainable energy production resources will be needed. For the United States, this paper’s objective is to estimate the type and scale of sustainable energy infrastructure needed to provide roughly today’s per capita energy consumption in 2100. For the world, the corresponding objective is to estimate the scale of the sustainable energy infrastructure required to provide, by 2100, the world’s population of 10 billion with a “middle class” per capita energy use comparable to that of Japan, South Korea, and Western Europe.


In the words of futurist Joel Arthur Barker, this paper is a scouting expedition to explore the terrain of the U.S.’s and the world’s energy supply futures. The report coming back is that the world’s forthcoming transformation to a sustainable energy future is, for the United States, an opportunity comparable to the opening of the American west in the 1800’s. In terms of the scale of investment, new business formation, jobs creation, technology advancement, and intellectual property development, transitioning to sustainable energy will be the massive technological and economic powerhouse of the 21st century. Wisely understanding and acting on this opportunity without hesitation should be the strongly-held expectation of all Americans and the clear objective of the energy policy and programs of the next presidential administration. Failing to understand and act will create a disaster where the U.S. literally falls behind the “power curve” of the supply of energy needed to sustain a reasonable standard of living and its role as a great nation.




This paper focuses on assessing the energy supply situation for the United States and the world in 2100, the end of this century. This has been done to establish a long-term planning horizon where the reader may be comfortable with accepting the argument that the United States’ and the world’s energy supply situations could and, probably, must be significantly different than they are today. However, the reader is cautioned that, from the perspective of transitioning from today’s substantial use of non-renewable oil, coal, and natural gas to a future substantial use of sustainable energy sources, the necessity and timeline for this transition will be driven by consumer demand and the rate of depletion of the identified and developed reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas. Hence, by 2100, the United States and the world may have already been decades into the new era of substantial sustainable energy use—not by choice as much as by necessity.


The proper reader perspective, therefore, is to not become comfortable with the notion that we have over 90 years to solve the immense challenges inherent in the transition to sustainable energy sources. Therefore, whenever “2100” is mentioned with respect to projecting the U.S.’s and the world’s needed energy supplies, the reader should add the caveat “or perhaps much sooner” to maintain the correct perspective.


One way to appreciate the challenges ahead is in terms of harvesting energy where the planting-harvesting cycle for significant new sustainable energy sources is 20-30 years long (e.g., building 500 new nuclear power plants). The United States and the world may only have three energy harvest cycles—perhaps fewer—to make the successful transition to sustainable energy. Time is precious and is not to be wasted.


Executive Summary


Key findings:


1. By 2100, the number of people actually using electricity and modern fuels will more than double. Of the world’s current 6.6 billion people, 2.4 billion do not have access to modern fuels and 1.6 billion do not have access to electricity. As a result, a substantial percentage of the world’s population lives in a state of energy deprivation that substantially impacts health, individual economic opportunity, social and political stability, and world security. By 2100, the world’s population is projected to climb another 3.4 billion to roughly 10 billion. This means that by 2100, an additional 5-6 billion people, not using modern fuels and electricity today, must be provided with assured, affordable, and sufficient energy supplies if the world’s current energy insecurity is to be substantially eliminated.


2. By 2100, to meet reasonable energy needs, the total world’s energy production of electricity and modern fuels must increase by a factor of about 3.4X while that of the United States must increase by a factor of 1.6X. The annual per capita total energy consumption of Japan, South Korea, and Europe averages about 30 barrels of oil equivalent or BOE. Further energy conservation may reduce this to about 27 BOE per year. This value is used in this paper as a level of energy consumption needed for a modern standard of living and a stable political and economic environment outside the United States. By 2100, should the non-U.S. world population achieve this modern “middle class” standard of living, the world will require an annual energy supply of around 280 billion BOE. Today, the world’s electricity and modern fuels energy supply is about 81 billion BOE. Hence, by 2100, the world will need on the order of 3.4X more energy than is being produced today. In the United States, a near doubling of the population by 2100, even with a 20% reduction in per capita energy use, will require a 1.6X increase in U.S. energy needs.


3. If oil, coal, and natural gas remain the predominant source of energy, both known and expected newly discovered reserves will be exhausted by 2100, if not far earlier. Of the 81 billion BOE produced each year from all energy sources, 86% or 70 billion BOE comes from non-renewable oil, coal, and natural gas. At this percentage, by 2100, the world would need about 240 billion BOE from oil, coal, and natural gas. With an annual average of about 155 billion BOE through the end of the century, the world would need about 14,100 billion BOE of oil, coal, and natural gas to reach the end of the century. Current proved recoverable reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas totals only about 6,000 billion BOE. Expert estimates of additional recoverable reserves optimistically adds another 6,000 billion BOE—for example, including nearly 3,000 billion BOE from all oil from oil shale—for a combined total of around 12,000 billion BOE. [1] With increasing world energy consumption and if oil, coal, and natural gas continue to provide most of the world’s energy, known and new reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas will be exhausted by the end of the century, if not much earlier.


4. To transform the world to primarily sustainable energy by 2100 to replace oil, coal, and natural gas, current sustainable energy sources must be scaled up from today by a factor of 26. By the end of the century—perhaps decades earlier—the world will need to obtain almost all of its energy from sustainable energy sources: nuclear and renewables. Today, the equivalent of about 11 billion BOE comes from sustainable energy sources. By 2100, the world must increase the production capacity of sustainable energy sources by a factor of about 26 to provide the equivalent of 280 billion BOE. The two primary sources of sustainable energy today are nuclear and hydroelectric. Today, the world has the sustainable energy equivalent of about 350 1-GWe (gigawatt-electric) nuclear power plants and 375 2-GWe Hoover Dams. To meet the world’s 2100 need for 280 billion BOE of energy production, every four years through the end of the century, the world must add this amount of sustainable energy production in the form of nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass.



[Larger copy of the above chart]


5. Terrestrial sources of sustainable dispatchable electrical power generation will fall significantly short of U.S. and world needs by 2100 and, even, current U.S. needs. Energy is supplied in two primary forms: dispatchable electrical power to meet consumer needs for electricity and modern fuels to power transportation and other systems operating off the electrical power grid. By 2100, the world will need about 18,000 GWe of dispatchable electrical power generation capacity, compared with about 4,000 GWe today, with almost all generated by sustainable sources. [2] To assess the potential of nuclear fission and terrestrial renewables for meeting this world need, the addition of 1,400 1-GWe conventional nuclear fission reactors [3], the construction of the equivalent of 1,400 2-GWe Hoover Dams for added hydroelectric power generation, the addition of 1,900 GWe of geothermal electric power generation, and the expansion of wind-generated electrical power to 11 million commercial wind turbines, covering 1.74 million sq. mi., would only be able to supply about 47% of the world’s 2100 need for dispatchable electrical power generation capacity. [4] For the United States, only about 30% of the needed 2100 dispatchable electrical power generation capacity could be provided by these sustainable sources. By 2100, the U.S. and the world would be left with a dispatchable electrical power generation shortfall of 70% and 53%, respectively, with respect to this paper’s projection of the 2100 needs. Further, for the United States, the projected 2100 sustainable generation capacity would only provide about one-half of the current installed generation capacity that relies substantially on non-renewable coal and natural gas.


[Larger copy of the above chart]

6. Expanded conventional renewable sources of sustainable fuels—hydrogen, alcohol, bio-methane, and bio-solids—will not be able to meet the U.S.’s or the world’s 2100 needs for sustainable fuels. To assess the potential for conventional renewable sources of sustainable fuel for the entire world in 2100, hydrogen production from the electricity generated by nearly 600,000 sq. mi. of ground solar photovoltaic systems, hydrogen production from over 80% of the electrical power generated by 11 million wind turbines, and biofuels produced from 13,000 million tons of land biomass from the world’s croplands and accessible forestlands would only be able to supply about 37% of the world’s 2100 need for sustainable fuels. For the United States, by 2100, the situation is about the same with only about 39% of the 2100 needed fuels production capable of being provided from these conventional sustainable energy sources. As with sustainable electrical power generation, conventional sustainable U.S. fuels production at projected 2100 levels would fall well short of meeting current U.S. needs for fuel.



[Larger copy of the above chart]

7. Closing the U.S.’s and the world’s significant shortfalls in dispatchable electrical power will require substantial additional generation capacity that can only be addressed through the use of space solar power. Because of the substantial shortfall in needed 2100 fuels production, producing even more sustainable fuels to burn as a replacement for oil, coal, and natural gas to generate the needed additional electrical power is not practical. As a result, additional baseload electrical power generation capacity must be developed. The remaining potential sources of dispatchable electrical power generation are advanced nuclear energy and space solar power. While advanced nuclear energy certainly holds the promise to help fill this gap, fulfilling its promise has significant challenges to first overcome. Demonstrated safety; waste disposal; nuclear proliferation; fuel availability; and, for fusion and some fission approaches, required further technology development limit the ability to project significant growth in advanced nuclear electrical power generation. Space solar power (SSP)—involving the use of extremely large space platforms (20,000 or more tons each) in geostationary orbit (GEO) to convert sunlight into electrical power and transmit this power to large ground receivers—provides the remaining large-scale baseload alternative. Relying on SSP would require 1,854 5-GWe SSP systems to eliminate the world’s shortfall in needed 2100 dispatchable electrical power generation capacity. Of these, 244 SSP systems would be used to eliminate the U.S. shortfall in needed 2100 dispatchable electrical power generation capacity. The following two charts summarize this paper’s projection of the potential contribution of SSP in meeting the U.S.’s and the world’s dispatchable electrical power generation needs in 2100.


[Larger copy of the above chart]


8. In addition to eliminating the dispatchable electrical power generation shortfall, SSP could, with algae biodiesel, eliminate the sustainable fuels production shortfall. Excess SSP electrical power can be used, when demand is less than the SSP generation capacity, to electrolyze water to produce hydrogen. Closed-environment algae biodiesel production, done on the land under each SSP receiving antenna, combined with SSP hydrogen production can provide 24% and 19% of the United States’ and the world’s 2100 needed fuels production, respectively. The remaining fuels gap would be closed by warm-climate, open-pond algae biodiesel production. These two forms of sustainable fuels production—SSP hydrogen and algae biodiesel—would provide slightly more that 60% of this paper’s projection of the U.S.’s and the world’s 2100 needs for sustainable fuel production, as seen in the two charts below.


[Larger copy of the above chart]

9. Recognizing that the dedicated land area required in the United States to install the needed renewable energy production systems will be substantial, SSP provides one of the highest efficiencies in terms of renewable energy production capacity per sq. mi. of all the renewable alternatives. In the United States, 375,000 sq. mi.—about 12% of the continental United States—would be directly placed into use for renewable energy generation to meet this paper’s projection of 2100 energy needs. (For comparison, the U.S. arable and permanent cropland totals 680,000 sq. mi.) This land would be 100% covered with wind farms, ground solar photovoltaic systems, SSP receiving antennas, and open-pond algae biodiesel ponds. Of these four renewable energy options, SSP is one of the most land use efficient. The 244 SSP receiving antennas would require only about 20,000 sq. mi. or about 0.6% of the continental U.S., while providing nearly 70% of the dispatchable electrical power generation capacity and about 24% of the sustainable fuels production capacity by 2100.


Key conclusions:


1. Based on this assessment’s findings, a sound U.S. energy policy and implementation strategy should emphasize:


  • Finding and producing more oil, coal, and natural gas to meet growing demand in order to minimize energy scarcity and price escalation during the generations-long transition to sustainable energy supplies;
  • Adopting prudent energy conservation improvements to reduce the per capita energy needs of the United States, as well as the rest of the world, without involuntarily reducing the standard of living;
  • Aggressively transitioning to conventional nuclear and terrestrial renewable energy sources to supplement and then replace oil, coal, and natural gas resources to avoid dramatic reductions in available per capita energy as non-renewable energy sources are exhausted this century; and,
  • Aggressively developing advanced nuclear energy, space solar power energy, and open-pond/closed-environment algae biodiesel production to fill the substantial projected shortfalls in sustainable electrical power generation and fuels production that will develop even with optimistic levels of conventional nuclear and terrestrial renewable energy use.


2. While it is certainly easy to be disillusioned by these findings, this need not and should not be the case, especially in the United States. The world and the United States have successfully undergone a comparable transition in energy sources when wood was no longer sufficient to meet the growing needs of a rapidly industrializing world. When the transition to coal started in earnest in the 17th century, steam power, electrical power, internal combustion, and nuclear energy where yet-to-be-invented new forms of energy conversion that now power the world. For about four centuries, technological development, economic investment, and industrial expansion— undertaken to realize the potential of “easy energy”—have been a foundation of the world’s growing standard of living and the emergence of the United States as a great power. Now, recognizing that the end of easy energy is at hand, the United States needs to aggressively move to expand existing sources of sustainable energy and develop and implement new sources to foster continued technological development, economic investment, and industrial expansion in the United States during the remainder of this century. It is critical that the United States take a leadership position in the development of space solar power as this may become the dominant electrical power generation capability for the world.




1. Methane hydrates are not included in this estimate for reasons discussed in the paper.


2. Stable electrical power grid operations require sufficient dispatchable power generation capacity to meet, at any time, peak consumer demand plus a modest reserve margin. Only generation systems that have a high assurance of being available to deliver power on demand (e.g., nuclear, hydroelectric, geothermal, and carbon-fired generators) are considered dispatchable.


3. The addition of 1,400 conventional nuclear fission reactors is consistent with projections of available land resources of uranium fuel, without using breeder reactors, lasting upwards of 150 years. The significant use of uranium extracted from seawater is not assumed.


4. As discussed later in this paper, the variability of wind-generated electrical power is assumed to severely limit its ability to provide dispatchable electrical power. Most wind-generated electrical power is assumed to be used to produce hydrogen fuel.


===== End of excerpt =====


Copyright © 2008 James Michael Snead. Reproduction of the preceding excerpt (and the figures above) from the paper “The End of Easy Energy and What to Do About It” is permitted for personal, educational, and internal organizational use without prior written approval of J. M. Snead. Commercial printed and internet use (e.g., blog), including posting, and personal internet use (e.g., blog) and posting of only the preceding excerpted portion of the paper (and the figures above) for purposes of discussion are permitted provided full attribution and reference to this blog site is clearly made. For permitted and non-permitted reproduction or posting of the full paper, see the copyright notice on the paper. Notice: The author makes no warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information contained in this paper.


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