17 – Space solar power and America’s energy future (Part 2)


Should space solar power have an important part in America’s energy future? In Part 1 on this series on the possible role of space solar power in America’s energy future, I looked at three questions:


– What is the current and future U.S. energy consumption and production situation?

– What kind of changes would be needed to become energy-assured?

– What desired outcomes of U.S. energy policy should be pursued?


I ended that blog with six energy outcomes that a rational U.S. energy policy should achieve. These are:


  • Energy assuredness: No significant dependency on energy sources not subject to U.S. legal control and energy policy. Achieving energy assuredness does not preclude energy imports provided that energy availability, sufficiency, and affordability are achieved. For example, the U.S. could use a treaty to establish U.S. access to non-territorial energy sources with appropriate provisions in the treaty guaranteeing U.S. access.


  • Energy availability: Energy supplied to the consumer in the form and at the time needed. Energy availability ensures that there is no significant interruption or constraint on the consumer’s access to energy when desired.


  • Energy sufficiency: Total U.S. production of energy (including guaranteed imports) of all types exceeding demand with reserves adequate to meet variability in supply and demand. Energy sufficiency ensures that sufficient production and distribution reserves exist to achieve energy availability. Energy sufficiency also ensures that U.S. energy consumption per person meets that needed to sustain the desired U.S. standard of living.


  • Energy affordability: Energy costs that do not constrain national economic growth. Primarily, this means that energy cost per unit of economic productivity does not constrain wages, profits, business expansion, new business formation, or the undertaking of critical government functions. Energy affordability is not energy price controls as it does not prescribe consumer energy prices.


  • Energy acceptability: Production, distribution, and consumption of energy undertaken without unacceptable social, economic, and environmental impacts.


  • Energy economic opportunity: Production, distribution, and consumption of energy undertaken such that the U.S. gross domestic product is significantly increased and the U.S. trade balance is significantly improved.


The intent of this list is to define characteristics that can be used to assess proposed solutions to meeting America’s future energy needs. The most desirable solutions would strongly enable all of these outcomes.


This list is not in any hierarchical order of priority. Establishing a hierarchical order, based on human psychological and physiological needs, will help to define the process needed to search for and identify strong possible solutions.


Human psychological and physiological needs:


An effective energy policy must be viewed as a collective solution, meaning that it must satisfy the needs of the general population. In searching for possible energy solutions, some argue for what may be termed niche solutions — such as living in the high desert in southwestern U.S. where local weather conditions enable a home to be powered by renewable energy or living in a planned community where riding a bicycle to work instead of driving is practical and safe. Most such solutions are proposed by those who, for personal reasons, choose to accept some level of personal “needs deficiency” as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would describe it or have sufficient financial resources to implement solutions that sustain their desired standard of living. Such solutions are usually not adopted by the general population because of the personal deprivations or unaffordable expenses they require. Car pooling is one moderate example of the former.


While there are alternative descriptions to organizing human needs, for convenience, I will use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow identified human deficiency needs, from the most important to the least important, as physiological (e.g., food, water, and shelter), safety (e.g., body, family, employment, health, and resources), love/belonging (e.g., friendship and family), and esteem (e.g., self-esteem, achievement, respect of others, and respect by others). Maslow argued that humans focus on these needs only when they are absent.


The final element of Maslow’s hierarchy is the personal growth need. This is undertaken when the deficiency needs have been met. Humans pursue personal growth through creativity, problem solving, knowledge and skill acquisition, the arts, etc.


Establishing a hierarchy of desired energy outcomes:


With the caveat that I do not have specific expertise in human psychological and physiological needs, I have reached the following conclusions with respect to ranking the desirable energy outcomes according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.


Within a technological society, energy sufficiency and availability are necessary for humans to obtain food and water. Not only is energy required to produce food and water and sustain protective shelter, but energy is required to enable individuals to obtain the economic resources needed to buy food and water. Hence, energy sufficiency and availability are fundamental needed outcomes and rise to the top of the hierarchy of desirable energy outcomes.


Energy assuredness addresses national energy security. The U.S. has available and sufficient energy supplies today, but these are not assured, as was discussed in the previous blog. World political and security events and extreme weather or similar natural events have disrupted U.S. energy supplies. Energy assuredness falls into Maslow’s hierarchy in the category of safety. Disruptions to U.S. imported energy may not, because of U.S. domestic energy production, threaten the basic human needs of food and water, but it could significantly impact the economy and personal employment. Hence, energy assuredness is lower in the desirable energy outcomes hierarchy than energy sufficiency and availability.


Energy affordability is also placed in the same safety category as energy assuredness. Fortunately, the U.S. has not experienced such a rapid increase in energy costs as to make the basics of food, water, and shelter unavailable to the general public. Energy cost increases have forced changes in personal expenditure prioritization to accommodate consumer price increases, but these have not risen to the level where the general population’s physiological needs were threatened, even during the periods of earlier oil embargoes. (In cases where lower income individuals have been so threatened, the social safety network provides some means of paying the cost of needed energy through heating subsidies and subsidized public transportation.) Energy affordability is grouped with energy assuredness lower in the desirable energy outcomes hierarchy than energy sufficiency and availability.


Energy acceptability relates to the human needs deficiency of esteem as it relates to self-esteem and the need for respect by others as well as the individual’s respect of others. The worldwide “green” movement is an example of the use of the human need for esteem to influence personal and societal action. A current example is the characterization of a hybrid car as being considered more “green” than a conventional car rather than focusing on the more fundament need of energy economics, i.e., the cost of operation. Energy acceptability is placed lower on the desirable energy outcome hierarchy than energy affordability and assuredness, primarily because of the lack of immediate impact on more important human deficiency needs. The time to influence public views on energy acceptability is when the other energy-related deficiency needs are being adequately addressed.


In recent decades, U.S. energy policy has generally been reactive to shortages, price increases, and energy production unacceptability. In the early 1950’s, when nuclear fission was first applied to civilian energy, U.S. energy policy was proactive in harnessing nuclear energy to provide a new fundamental source of domestic energy production. While improved energy sufficiency, availability, assuredness, and affordability will benefit from the introduction of new sources of acceptable energy, through appropriate selections the new acceptable energy sources can also provide disproportionate improvements in the gross domestic product and could significantly improve the U.S. balance of trade. Like energy acceptability, new energy sources offering improved economic opportunities are best established when the other energy-related deficiency needs are being adequately addressed. As such, energy economic opportunity is placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of desirable energy outcomes.


My list of the most important to least important desirable energy outcomes is:


  • Energy sufficiency and energy availability
  • Energy assuredness and energy affordability
  • Energy acceptability
  • Energy economic opportunity


Making use of the hierarchy of desirable energy outcomes:


During times of energy crisis, both individuals and governments will make use of this hierarchy of desirable energy outcomes to find immediate solutions to the crisis. They will start at the top and (attempt to) solve problems at each level, as Maslow stated, before moving to problems of lesser importance.


For example, during the first oil embargo in 1973-1974, when the sudden reduction in oil imports impacted energy sufficiency and local gasoline availability, the federal government acted within 30 days to adopt rationing and price controls to help ensure that everyone had access to gasoline for their primary transportation needs related to employment and individual and family health and security. This was followed within two months by the U.S. government’s first formal program aimed at achieving energy independence — the next tier in the hierarchy of energy assuredness and energy affordability. The primary component of this first energy independence solution was building the Alaska pipeline to enable the oil reserves of Alaska’s north shore to be brought economically to U.S. markets.


The federal government’s response to the first oil crisis was inadequate. Neither rationing and price controls nor the Alaskan pipeline proved to be effective in achieving the stated goals. Rationing and price controls demonstrated that such artificial controls don’t work better than supply and demand-driven prices as a means to achieve energy sufficiency and availability (providing that sufficient and available supplies exist to meet basic food, water, and health needs). While the Alaskan pipeline enabled a modest increase in domestic petroleum production (seen in the increase of “liquids” production during the mid-1980’s in the right chart of this figure), it was not a sufficient step towards true energy independence. (See this reference for a discussion of U.S. “energy independence” programs.)


While a short term crisis response to an energy shortage will flow from the top of this hierarchy, the long-term achievement of a desirable energy outcome must embrace all of these elements. The hierarchy must be generally turned upside down so that the order in which long-term solutions are sought becomes:


  • Energy acceptability
  • Energy economic opportunity
  • Energy assuredness and energy affordability
  • Energy sufficiency and energy availability


Note that the order of energy acceptability and economic opportunity was reversed. The reason for this is to not waste time searching for economic opportunity with energy sources that are not acceptable.


With this order the search for long-term solutions can only be practically undertaken when energy sufficiency, availability, assuredness, and affordability are NOT a problem. Hence, the search for solutions that address all of these factors can only be undertaken during times WITHOUT significant crisis.


History provides examples of why this is true. President Nixon’s administration, then under political pressure to end the Vietnam War, address the declining value of the stock market, reduce inflation, and respond to the Watergate scandal, probably placed its first priority on achieving public calm about energy sufficiency and availability, and minimizing further loss of confidence in the government and the economy. It was not in a position of political strength to pursue a true solution to energy independence. When the second oil crisis hit in 1979, President Carter, Nixon’s elected successor, faced his own set of problems of high inflation and the long Iranian hostage crisis that substantially impacted public confidence in his administration.


A search for desirable, long-term energy solutions can be undertaken as shown in the figure below.

[Larger copy of above illustration]