Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Energy Independence Policy

A Proposition Paper for The Jacksonian Party

Energy is something everyone needs and no one really wants to get. Environmentalists want to stop the use of oil, coal and nuclear power so as to use 'renewable' energy sources. Folks, let me tell you something here: renewable sources are secondary sources, great to exploit when its feasible but are derivative sources. Lets take a look at a few to see what I'm getting at.

Wind Power: This is great where terrain and general atmospherics lend towards constant and stable winds. Certain mountainous regions and coastal regions lend themselves well to that, even though bigwigs will grouse about 'Visual Pollution'. This sort of pollution is what is known as 'in the eye of the beholder' pollution, and if you don't like a nice seascape or mountain view cluttered up with wind towers the answer is simple. Move. But wind power comes from a couple of places: solar heating at the tropics and the Earth's rotation, plus a thermal temperature gradient due to altitude. Heat, spin and mix and there you go, wind power. As the atmosphere is a chaotic system, though amenable to generalized forces and topography, constant wind power is limited mainly to places of permanent thermal gradients. These happen to be coastlines and mountainous regions, although some flat plains across which winds must blow to bring a constant tropic to arctic/antarctic flow also will show up, along with some desert areas due to thermal expansion and contraction. That said there is a limitation to the efficiency of conversion from kinetic wind to electricity, which is a limitations in the actual loss of energy to turn turbine blades and in the conversion of straight line to radial motion and from radial motion to electrical energy inside the generator. Add in non-constancy of peak winds and slight variations in direction and the entire shebang hits in at 25% to 30% efficiency at best. The potentials look good... until you start to see that the really good places are usually not geographically located in areas you would actually want to *build* the damn things. Even with high temperature superconductors, you are looking at a dispersed source of energy that will require a distributed infrastructure to manage. It would form an industry with a low, but increasing payback, until all the good areas were used up. Up front construction and long-term maintenance would be a real eater of the energy savings.

Tidal or other ocean power: Note all the factors for wind. Add in using steep temperature gradients and a more viscous fluid (air is considered a fluid for this sort of thing). We all love the hydroelectric dams, pretty things, picturesque, form nice lakes and give a reacreational opportunity. That said the nearby strata of rock has to be impermeable to water, otherwise you end up having to lay a concrete reservoir, which kills the easy cost of the venture. Also, one needs a good water supply that nearby municipalities do not forsee using. And the energy comes from ocean evaporation via rainfall. The sun does the work constantly, so it is pretty reliable, save in drought prone areas. Most of the good spots are already taken. Tidal filled basins are not a bad idea, and depend upon the Earth-Moon system to lift the water up as the Earth turns under that bulge. Large, fillable tidal flats needed, but they refill a couple of times a day. Thermal gradients from ocean bottoms to surface can also be good once a flow is started. Again, solar heating gives the incline and we just use that. Here the large investment is not only in the equipment and standard maintenance, but where seawater is used the corrosion factor plays a large part. And while there are lots of likely spots, you do not want these close to ports or heavily trafficked sealanes. Also subsidance and earthquake zones need to be taken into consideration. So another high up-front cost and maintenance, and limited sighting for such things.

Solar energy: The source of the renewables and most everything except nuclear power. The best way to use it is for heating: let materials take in sunllight and re-radiate infrared. They do that anyways, so learning to build a bit better is a necessity. Conversion to electricity, either via concentration of energy to a turbine powerplant or via photovoltaic cells is not that energy efficient. Low cost amorphous photovoltaic cells have a low energy cost to produce, but are also lower in conversion rate than their aligned crystal brothers. And those have a higher conversion rate, but much higher production cost to them. While heat can be stored via fluids and such, direct conversion ceases when the sun isn't shining. A problem. For areas that have a large percentage of sunny days, not a bad idea to supplement the power grid.

Geothermal energy: Currently good for hotspots and for examination of thermal incline by circulating fluid through pipes in contact with that incline. The higher the temperature gradient is closer to the surface the better off the system is. For deep drilling downwards, some new technology for supporting large pipes and repairing same needs to be developed. For anything outside of near-surface work, a new set of technologies needs to be brough to the forefront.

Biomass: Solar energy conversion via living systems to allow secondary use of that energy. This is another cost per square meter to run, process and convert. Good for a few things, but limited in efficiency by the overall conversion process on the biological side and then on the technical side to get the energy out in a useful form. Very low percentage conversion rate, and time consuming to get the desired energy mass from the system.

Coal, oil and methane are all end results of biomass conversion, by current theories, and that was conducted over millions of years and then having high temperatures and pressures applied to get the resultant fuels. And even if the *oil everywhere you dig* folks are right, they have yet to demonstrate this global oil mass in seismic surveys and even *it* would be a limited source as the Earth, itself, does not produce very much carbon from the core to the crust.

Gloomy, huh?

So, time to look at the criteria for a good energy source:

  1. Renewable. Self-renewing is better and somewhat efficient in conversion capability.
  2. Continuous. 24/7 is optimal.
  3. Low maintenance cost. You don't want to have to keep worrying about the conversion area and tinkering it all the time.
  4. Do-able with modern technology. No additional wheels need to be invented.
  5. Low cost per conversion unit. You want a nice low cost to power ratio.
  6. Relatively low up-front cost for startup. To get at any renewable you will need to push hard to get an industrial base going to support it for large-scale deployment.
There you go! Now what *fits* the criteria? The previously discussed all get the #1 as a given.

Wind can potentially get you #2 and geothermal and ocean thermal gradient also fit the bill, along with tidal pools and hydroelectric. To get the others you either need a storage system, back-up of materials or other way to stop-gap in production shortfalls. Solar energy is *bursty* enough for daytime energy spikes, but nightly energy spikes are a problem.

Low maintenance cost winners are hydroelectirc, tidal pools, oceanic thermal gradients and solar. Wind and geothermal might make the cut, also.

Low cost per conversion unit. When distributed over the expected useful life of the system, you want to get more energy out than is put into it for producing the conversion capability. This includes maintenance. So hydroelectric dams with a high up front cost have low maintenance and a long life span. Similar for tidal pools and ocean thermal gradients. In theory the solar sources also look good on this. Biomass requires large-scale agrarian conversion and an infrasturcture to support it. Geothermal and wind look good on this front.

Large scale startup costs and industrial infrastructure and support. Simply put, hydroelectric and solar radiation for heating win it. These area do-able with modern technology at low cost.

Now a final criteria is adding in the geolocation capability. Hydroelectric has basically run its course. And while some might like a geothermal tap in their neighborhood, but until we get a much better handle at deep crustal geophysics, you might want to wait on that.

Any direction this Nation chooses for energy independence upon renewables will need: a new industry to support it, a way to properly distribute the energy, and something that does can get the energy at a low cost.

Welcome to the future of the 1960's and Gerard K. Oneil!

Now, in 1969 Mr. O'neil's class at Princeton took a bit of a look at space colonization and industrial expansion. The major push then, as now, was industrial expansion that was non-polluting and that could provide cheap electrical energy. There is, indeed, an up-front cost to doing so and that was examined then using then current space industrial capacity. Unfortunately the question of 'what are we getting from the space program?' was asked and no one pointed out better technologies, miniaturization and a better understanding of how to make systems safer. Instead they pointed at microwave ovens and teflon. And this jobs creating and economy expanding industrial base was closed down, leaving a few large aerospace giants in the field who wanted nothing to do with actual economic expansion into space and, instead, wanted to live off the Federal Government's teat.

By-the-by, did the few billion dollars put into: the war on poverty, the war on cancer and the fight on inflation actually *produce* any jobs or an industry? Just checking...

So here we are in 2006 without a robust space industrial capacity. What is left is a withered and decrepit thing that can barely slither on Federal military money. NASA has created a bureaucracy of 'can't do' and hindered any attempt to get a real handle on space use for industrial and energy production. So we are left, today, having to build something *new*.

Now, many enthusiasts are pointing to the space elevator concept... and forget that such a thing will need a robust space industry to START it! Further advanced rockets and aerospace designs will be needed to exterior inspection and repair, so even if the thing is built, if it is damaged you may want to think twice about depending on its inherent lift capability to sustain itself.

So, the question is, why to space?

First off, the technology is known. If a good economic foundation could be done with 1969 technology, I would hope that modern technology would at least *equal* that.

Second, the sun only goes in shadow for a limited time in space. A few minutes a day, depending upon orbit. With multiple devices there may be a slight shortfall in energy output, but it will not stop.

Third, in a vacuum maintenance is minimal. Some orbital adjustment for Space Solar Power Satellites and some checking for micrometeoroid damage, plus some solar flare-ups now and then. Nothing compared to the structural checks here on Earth because there is no need to fight gravity. So the entire structure will be low in mass and easy to handle, although its size will be huge.

There is an upfront start-up cost, which I will get to, but the entire space-based industrial cycle will be self-sustaining once started. Manpower will *always* be needed for delicate industrial operations in space. So a space colony to service the industry will be necessary. But for many things, such as providing Lunar regolith, remotely operated vehicles or semi-autonomous vehicles will be good enough. Once operational the entire system works to distribute cost like a dam, but without the maintenance expenditures for such.

Now to the hard part: Up front costs.

Remember, no matter which renewable you choose, you will have an infrastructure and capital investment to make on a large scale. And even the lowest of polluting energy sources to *use* have pollution in their cycle including the creating of same. The question is where do you want that pollution to go? If you stick with terrestrial based energy sources, you will leave it here on Earth. Thanks, folks!

There is pollution in using rockets and planes, we already have that. The scale of this sort of venture will be small for just the intended goals. There will be unintended consequences, but those can be a plus to the economy.

Also the big plus of space based energy production is that the source is not only free, but the ability to put out more collection area is basically unlimited. There are some orbital mechanics to be considered and such, but those are minor compared to anything similar here on Earth.

To get this all started there needs to be a re-useable lift capability for basic industrial and human payload. The way forward is pointed out by the old method that is tried and true of Prize Money to achieve goals. That is how aviation grew: prizes were set for distance, flying time, altitude and such and aircraft developed to meet those needs. This expanded the technical envelope of what was do-able and gave rise to the entire aviation network we have today. NASA has killed this by its very presence. It is time to get them out of the building of space vehicles and set them on the course of buying Commercial Off The Shelf space capacity. To do this requires a prize system with identifiable goals.

Most prizes are a 'first past the post' sort of deal, where winner takes all. To get a viable space transport industry this cannot be used as it limits competition. I would suggest three equal prizes, with a time duration on them for each level. Once the first is achieved, the other two will last for 3 more years at that level. And to make sure that this is homegrown competition, the prizes will be awarded to companies that are based in the US or in Free Trade Countries and cannot go to any company that uses government contracts for income, besides selling off-the shelf equipment and prizes. So all the major aerospace vendors may *not* apply. Sorry, but they have grown fat and weak on Federal money, they could have done this with their profits but did not, so I see no reason to support them in this.

The goals will all require a 90% re-useable vehicle, not including fuel.

After that the first goal is: Altitude and safe return. Sub-orbital first and then to sustained Earth orbit. Finally to sustained circumnavigate an Earth-Moon orbit.

The second goal is: Re-useability. The craft must first show a one-month turn-around time at each level. Then another award for a 2 week turnaround time. A third award for a 1 week turnaround time. And a final award for a 24 hour turnaround time.

The third goal is lift capacity: Three human capable is a minimum. Five human capable or 1 ton gross dead weight. Then 10 human capable or 2 ton gross dead weight. Then 50 human or 10 ton gross dead weight.

The third goal determines overall outlay on the prize, so a 3 human to sub-orbit and one month turnaround to same gets the lowest prize. The highest is the category of 50 human to Earth-Moon orbit and the craft turnaround time being under 24 hours. I suggest a low prize of $1B and a high end prize of $100B, payable on verification of doing all the craft set out to do.

The things that need to get put in space to start up a solar power satellite production system are as follows:

1) Lunar surface mining operation, with solar array and linear accelerator. This is a basic 'scoop, bag and shoot' operation which is either semi-autonomous or remotely operated. The lunar surface is pretty homogeneous and falls within known bounds for certain elements, so put this operation down in an easy to manage area.

2) Orbital 'catching' system. A reverse system to slow down the accelerated mass from the moon.

3) Mirrors for a solar smelter, plus smelter containment vessel. Break the lunar material as far down as need be to get necessary elements from it. Note that silicate rocks have oxygen as part of their makeup, so one byproduct of smelting is gasses and oxygen is one of them. Very useful in space. Elements can be drawn off as they disassociate or cut up from a cooled mass as they cool and solidify at different temps.

4) Orbital factory. Take the materials from the smelter and rework via many means, from injection casting to atomic vapor deposition. Parts of this may be semi-autonomous for regular work. Silica slag will be used to protect the colonies and working areas. There will be a lot of this.

5) Working factory colony. A small colony to run the factory.

Factory one production schedule: another factory, solar power satellite, space colony, sps, sps, sps, factory, colony, sps... and so on.

By year 5 you will have about 3 solar power satellites delivering microwaves to distributed rectenna arrays on Earth. They will deliver an energy equal to twice that of sunshine in microwaves. This is the equivalent of what an airline pilot experiences. It is not lethal. It is not mutagenic. As the rectenna array is doing an straight conversion, it has a high conversion rate so it should not warm up the surroundings. Crops and cattle can live under the array. In the desert it can co-locate with standard solar power stations.

Notice that with the lunar materials this system is self-sufficient and self-generating save for the actual workforce necessary to run things. The payback is cheap energy and more of it as time goes on. Lots more of it once three or more factories are in production. The the question is what to do with EXCESS production capacity.

A good thing would be to steer asteroids away from Earth and pull them into a parking orbit for in-situ factory use.

There is money in them thar asteroids!

And why do this?

I hear China is working towards a re-useable heavy lift vehicle.

I would prefer not to buy energy from them, thanks.


ablur said...

Well thought out. Good review of most alternative energy sources. I feel you short changed nuclear with the new technology disclosed in 1986 we could reduce the waste danger down to 30yrs. Everyone keeps using the thousands of years line. Nuclear is the best immediate option especially under the new tech plan. The construction and cost would be made up in a short period of time.
Long term speaking -- space is the right choice and the best solution.

A Jacksonian said...

ablur - Agreed! Moving to pebblebed reactors of the sealed reactor 'battery' system would be the best route for stop-gap electricity production. Encasement of nuclear waste in high density glass and embedded a few hundred meters below the surface in a subduction zone then puts it on its way for natural recycling and out of any possible danger of contamination of the environment.

Let the Earth do what it is good at.

But for the long, long haul, space-based SPS capability is the only feasible, low impact and self-sustaining system proposed. Time to get away from agriculture and its bio-inefficiencies and move towards direct utilizatio of solar power. And in space, putting up square yardage is cheap. Very cheap.