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Selling the Sun

Space Colonies

by T.A. Heppenheimer
Stackpole Books, 224 pp., $12.95 (to be published May 1)

The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space

by Gerard O’Neill
Morrow, 288 pp., $8.95

Solar Energy and America’s Future and Development Administration (ERDA) Commerce 5285 Port Royal Rd. Springfield, Virginia 22161

prepared by the Stanford Research Institute for the Energy Research
Available from National Technical Information Service US Department of, 104 pp., $5.50

In its most pessimistic rendering and to its most apocalyptic observers the energy crisis—omnipresent, irreversible—foretells the end of civilization. Slowly, but inevitably, the world will run out of natural gas, oil, uranium, coal. It is understood by all that modern man must move away from reliance on fossil fuel and toward other sources of energy. But such a move, entailing changes in the shape of Western society, seems impossible to accomplish. Instead the drive to develop more fossil and other nonrenewable fuels grows more intense. In the end this nightmare augurs a dying world.

It is scarcely coincidental that amid the oppression of this nightmare a bizarre yet tremendous vision of a renewed planet has been born. At the center of this vision stands the sun. The dreamers, in their reveries on the future of solar power, propose the ultimate technocratic solution to the energy crisis: that space colonies be established, equipped with the means to beam the sun’s energy by microwave back to Earth.

Here is how T.A. Heppenheimer, author of Space Colonies, states the argument:

…When we inquire into new energy sources, we find that they appear too costly, too unsafe, or too uncertain in their practicality to give genuine assurance that the world we seek is indeed achievable.

It is at this point that space colonization enters the picture.

The power satellites built in a space colony offer considerable promise of being the much-sought cheap, clean, and inexhaustible source of power. In space they can be built rapidly and at little cost to Earth. On the ground rectennas can be built at a cost of $1 or $2 billion for each 10-million kilowatt station—a cost considerably lower than that of any ordinary power plant. In the power industry $100 billion is only a small percentage of what will be needed to meet the growing demand of electricity in the remaining years of this century. In space colonization, $100 billion buys a complete space colony with its supporting lunar base and industrial facilities, ready to turn out powersats as desired.

Much the same sort of talk can be heard from Gerard O’Neill, author of The High Frontier. O’Neill, a professor of physics at Princeton, has been promoting the notion of space colonies and of solar power therefrom for several years. He not only adduces calculations similar to Heppenheimer’s but says that it is technically possible that the human population in space could reach the grand total of 7.3 billion in the thirtieth year of the exercise. He adds encouragingly that “once an emigrant left, the corresponding burden of his energy usage on Earth’s resources and atmosphere would be lifted, permanently except for his later brief visits to the home planet.”

Of course the great attraction of this new eschatology of solar power is very evident. As Heppenheimer puts it: “Beyond the material well-being, beyond the prerequisites for a decent world which will last a million years, lies the focus of human energy—the frontier.” His book is dedicated to John Kennedy and in his memory he delivers this apostrophe: “Here is a city of 10,000, a small, bright island in the emptiness of space. Here will be the place where the human race first dimly glimpses its possibilities, its prospects, its future. It will be the true fulfillment of the dreams which once inspired a young and vigorous president in days when the world was newer and all things seemed possible.”

Nothing is missing from Heppenheimer’s space fantasy. “A sexually mixed work force will ensure the development of a more normal society…. Affirmative action hiring procedures will be in force…. In particular, there will be sex in zero g…. People will still be able to get Time and National Geographic [via space Xerox].”

These are not the fantasies of cranks. Not so long ago the esteemed scientist Krafft Ehricke (now with North American Rockwell, formerly—as Heppenheimer cosily puts it—a member of the “Peenemunde group” along with Werner von Braun) was proposing as part of the “extraterrestrial imperative” that solar equipment in space reflect the sun’s rays to the dark side of the Earth, thus putting nature on a twenty-four-hour alert, as it were.

A long-range study by a NASA group discusses nuclear waste disposal in space, solar or nuclear power stations in space, and bases on the moon. This study concludes, somewhat chillingly, “Once we have learned to preserve our own biosphere, and the pristine state of near planets needs to be preserved no longer, the ability to shape nearby planet biospheres as benign environments for human beings will become a reality.” Whether, given the presence of nuclear waste and nuclear power stations in the heavens as well as on Earth, this environment will turn out to be all that benign is open to question.

Indeed there is a real political base across the country for the idea of space colonies and for solar power from space. NASA, with support in the Congress, is spending research funds to explore the notion as a natural development of—and argument for—an expanded space shuttle project. In the state of California the curiosity of Governor Jerry Brown has been piqued, particularly by O’Neill’s theories. And the idea of space colonies fits in well with the Pentagon’s concern for a space defense system where enemy satellites can be intercepted and destroyed before sabotaging the US’s own outer space communications network.

Furthermore space colony boosters such as O’Neill have received sympathetic hearings from utilities and other corporations looking into the prospects for solar power generation in outer space. Finally a series of programs which resulted in the launching of a space colony would be a boon for the aerospace industry, partly centered in Governor Brown’s own state of California.

Added to this rather businesslike alliance are those environmentalists happy to dream of a time when the afflictions of Mother Earth will be literally blown up into the sky, leaving this terrestrial sphere purified but not substantially changed in its economic and social arrangements. Two utopias for the price of one: brave new world above, brave old world below. Space colonies have always received keen support from this particular group, heedless of what traditionally happens on frontiers. Thus grouped behind the space colony concept are both those with keen environmental concerns and those technocrats now resurgent in the new Democratic administration. Such are the promoters of the new solar eschatology about which we will be hearing a great deal in the years to come.

But what about the prospects for solar energy on terra firma, short of these dreams of 2001? There are of course many serious practitioners of solar energy, somewhat embarrassed by such surreal dreams. These practitioners have waged a slow, dogged battle to persuade business, the government, and the citizenry at large that the way out of the energy crisis is to move slowly toward the implementation of solar energy, beginning with such mechanisms as solar hot water heaters and moving over time perhaps toward the generation of electricity by solar means.

This has been a gradual process, but it is now gaining momentum. During the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the federal government, then pouring millions into the development of nuclear power, spent $100,000 a year on solar energy. This year it is spending just under $300 million. Arthur D. Little and Company, the Boston consulting firm, estimates that the market for solar hot water and heating systems stood last year at between $40 and $50 million. The firm says that by 1985 this business will be worth from $800 million to $1.5 billion. Relative to other heating systems this is small, but no longer entirely negligible.

In addition to the money for research provided by the federal government through the Energy Research and Development Administration the solar industry is getting impetus from other quarters. Some two dozen states have laws exempting solar technologies from property taxes. Nine states have provided some form of tax incentives to encourage the use of solar energy. New Mexico, Hawaii, Idaho, and Kansas have all passed income tax credits for residential and commercial users of solar technology.1

It is well known that some of the major names in American industry have involved themselves in solar energy: PPG, the big Pittsburgh glass company; Revere Copper and Reynolds Metals; GE, Bell labs, and Honeywell; also oil companies such as Exxon, Shell, Gulf, Standard of Ohio, and Mobil. Of these big industrial companies one group—namely the glass and metal manufacturers—are looking to a burgeoning market for solar “collectors.” Oil companies and electronics firms are keen to spot areas for technological break-through which would give them purchase on a mass solar market.

Indeed much of the government money has gone to large companies, sometimes working in combination with large universities. A series of detailed hearings, conducted by Senator Gaylord Nelson’s Small Business committee and published in 1975, revealed at that time that 44 percent of the government’s solar energy contracts went to private business; of that percentage 31 percent went to large corporations.2 Small business, which it was hoped would receive a boost from the new solar industry, received scant attention from the government. The remainder went to government agencies and nonprofit institutions.

What will the shape of this emerging industry be, and who in fact will benefit from it? In a recent useful analysis, Solar Energy and America’s Future, prepared for the Energy Research and Development Administration by the Stanford Research Institute, offers a view of things to come.

After exploring trends into the first quarter of the twenty-first century the SRI analysts suggest three ways in which solar energy could have wide appeal. First, almost everyone now seems to agree that heating of water by the sun is an immediate and attractive prospect for numerous markets, including single family homes, low-rise apartment buildings, and commercial establishments. These systems employ “a collector” of the sun’s rays which either directly heats the water or uses a heat transfer medium to heat the water indirectly.

Such systems were used in California and Florida during the early part of the century and are now used in Israel, Japan, Australia, and some other countries. It is generally assumed that in heating water the sun will provide perhaps 70 percent of the total required heat and, when the sun is not shining, an electrical or gas back-up heater will come into play. The costs of these systems, ranging from $1,000 to $1,500, depend upon the region of the country in which they are installed, and are also affected to some extent by the amount of sunlight, as well as by labor costs and the price of back-up fuels.

A crucial factor in the development of solar energy is the cost of competing systems—gas or electricity (including nuclear power). The SRI study argues that the spread of solar water heaters will be much faster if the price of natural gas is deregulated, thereby driving its price up and making the cost of solar heaters more attractive. As time goes by, the study suggests, a critical factor in the acceptance of solar water heating could be the price at which synthetic gas made from coal is brought on the market. If it is expensive (and conservationists, heedless of crushing bills for poor people, will naturally argue that it should be) then solar water heating will be more appealing.

A second enticing prospect for solar energy is home heating. The outlook here is that by the year 2000 solar heating systems might well dominate the market in much of rural America. By that time gas, propane, fuel oil, and electricity would be much more expensive. In the big cities—especially in the Midwest and Northeast—electrical heating (including nuclear power) will probably prevail.

Solar power may also be helpful—in the view of the Stanford Research Institute report—in providing electricity during the daylight period. Solar electric power projects could well turn out to be economical and beneficial to utilities hard pressed to supply the needed energy generated by traditional means.

Such are the probable, foreseeable markets for solar energy. There are naturally other possibilities, but the three categories outlined above constitute the most sober assessment. How will US industry meet these needs?

Some of the companies already involved in research have been mentioned above. And from what one can tell it seems likely that there will be two tiers of the industry. One will be dominated by equipment manufacturers—Revere, Reynolds, PPG, etc. These large companies would already appear to be gaining the upper hand in the sun business.

On the second tier the actual dissemination of solar equipment to the consumer may turn out to be dominated by utilities. Utilities are involved in solar research. At least fifty-three of them are now conducting or planning to undertake some 220 research projects. Included among them are Pacific Gas and Electric, Pennsylvania Power and Light, Arizona Public Service Company, Tucson Gas and Electric, and New England Electric System. These are major utilities spread across the country and their activities demonstrate the seriousness with which solar power is taken by them.3 The utilities are also investigating programs whereby they will rent out solar equipment to consumers, in much the same way that the telephone company rents out telephones.

In certain respects it seems almost inevitable that utilities will become involved in the business because solar hot water and space heating systems, as currently envisioned, require a back-up system of either electricity or gas. Consequently their introduction and widescale use must be meshed with the activities of the utility, and be taken into account in the establishment of rates by state regulatory commissions. The point is that if after a period of rain a sizable number of solar hot water and space heating systems expired for lack of nourishment and therefore cut into the local utility grid, there could be a disastrous drain on the system unless such a contingency had not already been planned for.

There is, we should add, another aspect to the budding solar industry, and perhaps the most crucial of all: the financing of the expensive equipment. Many families in the United States cannot possibly afford new homes as it is, because of high mortgage rates and construction costs. Solar equipment, even though it offers a long-term saving in energy costs, now is very expensive to install and thereby boosts costs still further. Interest rates as well as ceilings on total home loans will have to be changed if the middle-income American—at whom the solar industry is aimed—is ever to be able to reap the harvest of the sun.

Thus the dream of solar power is working its way through the American consciousness on two levels: first the techno-ecstatic reveries of the space people; secondly the pastoral dreams of a generation of would-be Robinson Crusoes, harvesting the cheap, ever-self-renewing, clean energy of the universe. The truth will have a somewhat more familiar and modest tincture: the dominance of large corporations, of the utilities, and of the federal government in adjudicating the strategies of private industry.

What must be kept in mind is not only that the solar industry is aimed at the middle class but that most members of that class can no longer afford to buy houses. It is our view that for solar energy to make any significant contribution to a changed energy policy it would require not only the large-scale sale of bonds by local and state governments but a sizable subsidy program by the federal government. The sale of bonds by local and state governments could facilitate introduction of solar equipment if those authorities lent out the proceeds to home-owners at a low rate. It would also be of great use if such federal power programs as the Rural Electric Administration, federal hydro-electric projects, TVA, and other federally financed schemes for producing power were required under law to insist that ultimate consumers of their power adopt energy conservation programs. Such programs would include phased introduction of solar equipment.

The government might also make direct grants to local communities, including neighborhoods, for employment of the jobless who could be put to work in implementing energy conservation schemes, again including the introduction of solar power.

Finally there is no reason why the government should not now be insisting that all buildings constructed by the General Services Administration (post offices, federal office buildings, etc.) be required to include strict energy conservation measures as well as the introduction of solar power. This program could be extended to include buildings leased by the federal government. One worth-while step for the government to take would be to use its own building program as the occasion for establishing standards for solar equipment and for holding a much needed competition for architectural designs functionally compatible with solar power.

But what weight does solar power really carry in the nation’s energy future in comparison with other established fuels such as oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power? Right now it accounts for a negligible proportion. Oil and gas together supply 75 percent of the country’s energy needs; coal 18 percent; hydroelectric 4 percent; and nuclear 3 percent. The Energy Research and Development Administration projects that by the end of the century solar power will provide between 3 and 5 percent of energy needs. At that time the percentage supplied by oil and gas will have declined to 45-50 percent, coal will have increased to between 23 and 30 percent, and nuclear will have shot up to 14-20 percent. Hydroelectric will remain unchanged. In the first twenty-five years of the twenty-first century the Energy Research and Development Administration anticipates that solar energy may supply as much as 25 percent of the country’s energy needs.

Since ERDA is by predilection weighted toward development of coal and nuclear power such estimates about the solar percentage are on the conservative side. Nonetheless the clear implication is that the inauguration of solar power on any widescale basis will be slow—unless there is a major redirection of US energy policy. So far the ERDA solar program has not pursued any ambitious or imaginative path. Many of the bills introduced in the Congress have contented themselves with providing tax incentives rather than laying out a full policy under which solar energy can gradually and successfully be incorporated into an overall energy plan. President Carter has promised a full energy program next month. We may hope that it will deal firmly with the tendencies toward concentration already visible in the solar industry; also that it will devise some plan to divert the enjoyment of solar power away from the rich toward the middle- and lower-income groups already so oppressed by the energy crisis.

  1. 1

    See David Morris, “Solar Economics,” Self-Reliance, January 1977, p. 14.

  2. 2

    US Senate, Select Committee on Small Business, Hearings on Energy, Research and Development and Small Business, Part II, October 8 and 22 and November 18, 1975, pp. 4538-4540.

  3. 3

    See People & Energy, October 1976, page 2, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, DC.

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