15 – Space solar power and America’s energy future (Part 1)


It is clear that the U.S. is between the proverbial rock and a hard place with respect to its dependency on imported energy. Effectively addressing this issue will take a substantial and sustained national commitment every bit as vital to our nation’s future as was the nearly four-decade long national security actions associated with the “cold war” with the Soviet Union.


Last month, the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies held a conference, in Breckenridge, Colorado, to discuss the results of an informal collaborative effort undertaken this past summer on space solar power. The premise of this assessment was that the U.S. should lead the world in making use of space solar power as a primary means for achieving an energy-assured future based on renewable energy sources. Does this make sense? Can space solar power substantially help to achieve a goal of U.S. energy assuredness?


This fist blog in this series on space solar power looks at these 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?


Space solar power concept:


In the 1945, Arthur C. Clarke identified the communications potential of an Earth equatorial orbit (0° inclination) established at the specific circular orbital altitude (35,786 km above the Earth’s surface) where its period of revolution matched the Earth’s rotation. A communication satellite located at this position would always be in “line of sight” of ground receiving stations. This orbit is referred to as a geostationary orbit or GEO. In 1965, 20 years after Clarke’s 1945 technical paper describing this idea, the first communications satellite was placed into GEO. Today, GEO communication satellites and their services constitute a majority of commercial space operations.


GEO communication satellites essentially beam energy to the ground. The energy is, however, of low power and is organized to transfer information. In 1968, Peter E. Glaser invented a new class of GEO satellites where sunlight is captured and converted to electricity, the electricity is converted to specific forms of electromagnetic energy and the energy is directionally transmitted to terrestrial ground receivers. On the ground, the electromagnetic energy is captured by the receivers, converted back into electricity, and then fed into the electrical power grid to provide electricity to consumers. Today, Glaser’s invention is referred to as a space solar power satellite and is among a class of space-based energy supply systems that convert sunlight into terrestrial electrical energy.


The advantages of SSP are that its fundamental source of energy — sunlight — is renewable, is of high quality, is constantly available, is available in sufficient magnitude to meet U.S. energy needs, and is readily exploitable (once the necessary spacefaring logistics infrastructure is established). (The only other examples that come to mind are breeder nuclear reactors that produce more nuclear fuel than is consumed and wide-scale geothermal energy. In the future, nuclear fusion or matter-anti-matter power plants may also become fundamental energy sources.)


When first studied in the 1970’s, the technologies of the SSP satellite components, as well as the spacefaring logistics infrastructure needed to assembly and operate the SSP system, were too immature. (See SA blog 9 for a discussion of technology maturity.) Four decades of technology advancement, both with respect to the satellites and the enabling spacefaring logistics infrastructure, indicate that such a reassessment is now very timely as the U.S. struggles to implement an effective long-term energy policy.


Further information on SSP, see the National Space Society SSP Library.


Current Department of Defense interest in SSP:


In today’s increasingly energy-demanding world, freedom of access to readily exploitable energy is very important. Since the end of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, a primary objective of U.S. and allied military capabilities has been to enable the national competition for energy resources to be undertaken at the commercial and diplomatic level without conflict or the credible threat of conflict by others.


In 2006, Colonel Michael J. Hornitschek of the United States Air Force (USAF) completed a masters program of study at the Air Force’s Air University. His thesis, War Without Oil: A Catalyst for True Transformation, was published at an Occasional Paper by the Air University. It focused on the dilemma facing the United States (and the military) with respect to its dependency on non-renewable energy and non-U.S. sources of energy.


Last spring, this paper was brought to the attention of Major General James B. Armor, Jr., (USAF), director of the DOD National Security Space Office (NSSO). Recognizing the importance of the issues raised in the paper, General Armor directed that the NSSO assess these issues focusing on SSP. Lt. Colonel Michael “Coyote” Smith (now Colonel select) was given this assignment. (See Wired blog entry.) Due to the short response time and the unique nature of the information being addressed, Colonel Smith undertook a non-standard approach to conduct the assessment. He created an informal working relationship with the Space Frontier Foundation and used their resources to organize an internet working group to conduct the assessment.


Over 100 people participated in the SSP study through contributed support. The vision of the study was: “Security in the form of clean energy independence for America, its Allies, and the World.” The results of these efforts were reported at the Breckenridge Conference. According to Colonel Smith’s September 15 announcement on the Space Frontier Foundation blog site, an interim report is planned for release in October at the National Press Club through an event hosted by the National Space Society.


U.S. energy consumption, production, and imports:


The U.S. historical use of energy by source is shown in Figure 1. During its first century, the U.S. relied primarily on renewable energy in the form of wood. As the industrial revolution took hold and the demand for energy increased, coal became the primary energy source to be replaced by petroleum almost a century later.


As seen in Figure 1, U.S. energy consumption is shown in units of Quadrillion Btu (Q-Btu). Total U.S. energy consumption is approximately 100 Q-Btu while total world energy consumption is approximately 450 Q-Btu. Hence, total U.S. energy consumption is approximately 22 percent of the total world’s consumption. U.S. petroleum consumption is approximately 40 Q-Btu while total world petroleum consumption is approximately 170 Q-Btu. Hence, U.S. petroleum consumption is approximately 24 percent of the total world consumption.


Figure 1:


[Larger copy of above illustration]


As seen in the left chart of Figure 2, total U.S. energy consumption was about 100 Q-Btu while the U.S. production of energy was approximately 70 Q-Btu, leaving a shortfall of 30 Q-Btu made up by imports. These imports equated to about 43 percent of U.S. production capacity. Thus, to replace all 2005 imports, U.S. production would need to be 43 percent greater.


Figure 2:


[Larger copy of above illustration]


Assuming that this projection of U.S. consumption vs. production for 2030 is correct (see the left chart in Figure 2), in 2030 the U.S. consumption of 130 Q-Btu will exceed production of 85 Q-Btu by 45 Q-Btu. Imports will increase from 30 percent in 2005 to about 35 percent of total U.S. consumption. The imports will equate to 53 percent of domestic production meaning that, by 2030, U.S. domestic production would need to increase by 53 percent to eliminate imports. U.S. energy security, using these projections, continues to decline for the next quarter century.


It is also important to compare U.S. energy consumption per person with world energy consumption per person as this is another important consideration in establishing an effective U.S. energy policy. The U.S., with about 5 percent of the world’s population, consumes about 25 percent of the world’s energy. Hence, current U.S. energy consumption per person is about 5 times the average world energy consumption per person. (Reference) Only Canada exceeds the U.S. in energy consumption per capita. Also of importance, current U.S. imported energy consumption per person is about 150 percent of the world per person average.


If the world were to achieve the U.S. average energy consumption, the total world energy consumption, assuming no population growth, would be about 2,000 Q-Btu. With a U.N. projected medium population growth to 8.9 billion by 2050, the required energy consumption would be approximately 3,000 Q-Btu or 30 times current U.S. consumption. (Note: After 2050, the U.N. projects minimal future world population growth.)


U.S. and world energy availability:


For most of its first two centuries of existence, the U.S. was energy independent; meaning that it was capable of meeting all of its energy needs through domestic sources, even though some imports were used. Dr. M. K. Hubbert first discussed the inevitable depletion of exhaustible energy resources in a short paper in Science, in 1949, and then in a longer paper presented at an American Petroleum Conference in 1956. Hubbert’s methodology (see Hubbert curve) focused on using the records of the initial years of exploitation of a non-renewable energy resource to predict when the maximum production would be reached.


In the 1956 paper, Hubbert predicted a peak in U.S. domestic production of conventional petroleum in 1965-1970. The actual peak was in 1970-1971 which was also, coincidentally, the time that U.S. demand exceeded domestic production. From this point forward, the new and growing U.S. dependency on imported oil would carry significant and continuing serious complications to U.S. foreign policy, economic relations, and national security. For example, the first OPEC oil embargo of the U.S. occurred within two years of the U.S. petroleum production peak in 1970-1971. Further, it took place as part of a coordinated military action by several Arab states against Israel (the 1973 Arab-Israeli War).


Energy Policy Implication of Hubbert’s theory:


The clear implication of Hubbert’s work is that U.S. foreign relations, economic development, and national security policies built on expectations of the continuing availability and affordability of exhaustible energy resources have been extremely shortsighted. First, the ability to, with reasonable accuracy, predict future energy prices has not been well demonstrated. A comparison of the 2005 projected oil price, made in 2000, vs. the actual 2005 oil prices is shown below. This calls into question the accuracy of long term projections of energy costs and the implied stability of energy prices shown by such projections.


Figure 3:


[Larger copy of above illustration]


The history of conventional oil production shows that in most major consuming nations, domestic production of oil has peaked. (See the left chart in Figure 4.) Many energy availability analysts have concluded that the total world conventional oil and natural gas production has or will shortly peak. (See right figure in the illustration below.) (See this reference for additional discussion on the conventional petroleum peak and its impact.) However, the reference (expected) projection of future energy prices, from the Annual Energy Outlook 2007, does not appear to reflect a near-term world production peak. (See right chart in Figure 4.)


Figure 4:


[Larger copy of above illustration]


Defining a rational U.S. energy policy:


A rational U.S. energy policy must organize U.S. energy production, distribution, and consumption to achieve these outcomes:


  • 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.


How to achieve these energy outcomes and what role space solar power may play is explored in forthcoming blogs in this series.

(Minor correction made on 20070217.)

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