Saturday, April 06, 2013

More Space Based Solar Powered Shenanigans

Another writer has written another article on space based solar power (SBSP) focused on its history, the tens of millions of dollars already invested in the plan, the tens of billions more still needed to make a go of it and the perceived "giggle factor" arising from the inflated expectations and expansive hyperbole surrounding most discussions on this topic.

As described in the March 26th, 2013 Slate article "Blue Sky Thinking: The entirely serious plan to collect solar energy by spaceship and beam it back to Earth with lasers," many people consider the idea loony:
The concept, delicious in its brashness, brings to mind an early James Bond flick: shoot big pieces of solar-panel arrays into space, assemble them in orbit into massive power plants that are miles wide, let the floating facilities collect space’s intense sunlight and convert it into electricity, and then beam that extraterrestrial juice—ray-gun-style—back down to an energy-hungry Earth.
Of course, the article is in error. The real issues amusing SBSP skeptics are business and financial, not cultural. As outlined in the January 1st, 2013 blog post "Whatever Happened to Space Based Solar Power," lots of studies have been done in this area and they normally conclude that two specific sets of items must be dealt with before SBSP plans become commercially viable.

First of all, SBSP is a money pit. Tens of billions of dollars (maybe as much as $100Bln US or more) are needed over a period of maybe 10 - 15 years before it's possible to even begin to build a system capable of generating commercially valuable amount of energy.

What Dr. Evil hoped to raise during one of his monetarily challenged attempts to rule the world in the various Austin Powers movies.

Accountants, evil geniuses and even governments generally acknowledge that $100Bln dollars is a lot of money just to generate cash flow. For comparison, it's worth noting that cash normally generates cash flow all by itself and immediately, just by being deposited into a savings account; a process which even allows the investor to retain access to the principal.

And it's only after the initial billions of dollars of up-front costs are spent, that "massive" profits and commercial production becomes possible. SBSP studies generally agree this level of funding is the current minimum requirement to move forward with commercial operations.

Unless, of course, the second set of problems associated with SBSP end up getting in the way. These are the dozen and a half decidedly non-trivial, undefined engineering issues which need to be dealt with before SBSP could become economically viable.

An example of technical challenges. In the Austin Powers movies, sharks were unavailable and replaced with the "ill-tempered" and generally less effective "sea bass."

SBSP advocates freely acknowledge these challenges exist in much the same way that scientists and engineers working on other leading edge space projects understand that they also have undefined, non-trivial engineering challenges, which are mostly dealt with during design and construction.

An example of this would be the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

But as outlined in the July 12th, 2011 post "Tracking Costs for the James Webb Telescope, the original cost of the JWST grew from $824.8Mln US in 2002 to $6.5Bln US in 2011. Since then, costs have continued to rise to the current US Congress mandated cap of around $8Bln US, as described in the November 16th, 2011 Reuters article "NASA budget plan saves telescope, cuts space taxis."

Most of those increased costs were blamed on engineering challenges which developed logically from the desire of NASA administrators to make the JWST many times bigger, more powerful and more self contained than the Hubble Space Telescope, which the JWST was originally designed to compliment and later (after numerous delays) to replace.

In essence, the non-trivial and undefined design challenges needing to be dealt with as part of the JWST design process introduced enough unknowns into the process so as to insure that order of magnitude uncertainties embedded themselves into fiscal estimates.

Over time, the initial estimated cost became essentially the minimum cost for the project as the non-trivial and undefined design challenges turned the project into something worse that an ordinary money pit.

It became an undefined and essentially bottomless one.

Not explicitly defined as a money pit, but with many of the same characteristics.

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