17 December 2008
Publications - Power (Good)
Space Frontier Foundation Submits SSP Whitepaper
Will Obama and co. listen?
by G B Leatherwood
Last month, the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) submitted a white paper titled “Space Solar Power ( SSP)—A Solution for Energy Independence & Climate Change” to the Obama-Biden Transition Project, which was published by the Obama transition team.

The paper urges the president-elect “to include SSP as a new start in a balanced federal strategy for energy independence and environmental stewardship,”

Since it was posted for discussion on November 23, 2008, over 400 responses have been received, ranging from highly technical discussions of the pros and cons of space solar power to basic questions about what it is.

For insight into the creation of the paper, Space Future Journal talked to Space Frontier Foundation’s Space Based Solar Power Project leaders—and lead author of the paper—Charles Miller.

Miller is the President of Space Policy Consulting, Inc., (SPC) and a member of the board of directors of the Space Frontier Foundation. He has also served as administrator and a director of the National Space Society.

Space Future Journal: In your press release of December 9, 2008 you hinted that others besides the Foundation contributed to the White Paper. Who were they?

Miller: We are not at liberty to say who it is, but even though they did not want their names publicized at this time, we felt obligated to mention that others contributed to the effort.

SFJ: The White Paper points out that “…the Department of Energy ( DOE) says SSP is a space project…” and “…NASA says SSP is an energy project.” What would you do to resolve this lack of willingness to accept responsibility?

Miller: Optimally, given no restraints, we would create an entire new organization to lead a national initiative on Space Solar Power. This new agency would be modeled after the best aspects of the old National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA, forerunner of NASA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). We would then coordinate with the other relevant federal agencies.

SFJ: Uh-oh. This sounds like you want to establish yet another bureaucracy, which most people would say is the last thing we need. Is that what you’re saying?

Miller: It is highly unlikely that the Obama administration would create a new agency. However, it is possible to set up a brand new “division/group” within an existing agency. Such an approach is critical to achieving the objective.

The reason for creating a new organization is that new bureaucracies are MUCH less bureaucratic. Old bureaucracies are set in their ways, have thousands of rules already established, have a culture of regulation and rules, and have processes that are quite stifling. The rules, values, and processes of an old bureaucracy are almost death to new ways of doing business.

To maximize SSP’s chance of success, SSP needs to be managed by an organization that is optimized to the needs of an SSP strategy of building partnerships between government and private industry. Both DARPA and NACA are proven approaches to this kind of strategy. Since NACA is gone, and we want SSP to be developed outside the military, my recommendation is to set up a new organization.

Most likely, this “new” organization would be set up as a new division of an existing bureaucracy. This group must be geographically separated from the existing bureaucracy, and the group leadership needs the authority to organize its own group rules and processes and to select its own staff.

SFJ: Since the Obama-Biden Transition Project posted the White Paper on “Your Seat at The Table,” over 400 comments have been posted. To what do you attribute this level of interest in an otherwise unnoticed activity?

Miller: Space solar power is a new idea that is exciting, compelling and inspirational. The American people want a visionary and clear mission for the nation in space.

SFJ: The three main obstacles to SSP seem to be the enormous cost, the lack of cheap access to space, and the possible dangers of microwave energy hitting Earth where it isn’t intended to. Of these, which do you consider the first to be addressed?

Miller: The “enormous cost” and “the lack of cheap access to space” are effectively the same issue. Radical reductions in launch costs will lead to much higher launch rates, and similar reductions in the cost of spacecraft. Achieving cheap and reliable access to space is the key enabler for opening the space frontier.

The possible dangers of microwaves (or lasers) cannot be ignored, and must be addressed, but these dangers are easy to manage compared to achieving cheap access.

SFJ: “Every day we see announcements of bigger, better, cheaper, and more reliable ground-based solar energy installations. Given the government’s apparent support of these efforts, what do you think the chances are for equivalent support for SSP?

Miller: We are not asking for support for SSP that is equivalent to the support for ground solar. People keep trying to compare space solar to ground solar, but that is the wrong comparison.

You can build ground solar installations right now, and plug that energy into the grid. Also, ground solar is ideal for peak power.

Meanwhile, SSP is still in the advanced research and development stage, and will be for some time because the business case does not close. And when the business case does close, SSP will be focused on in-space power, power for humanitarian purposes (in response to natural disasters), and to forward military bases. In the long term, SSP is more in competition with base-load power sources such as natural gas.

Back to your original point. What we are asking for is that the federal government invest the same amount in SSP as it invests in fusion energy research. That is the correct comparison, as fusion is another advanced energy technology that has huge potential, but which is also in the R&D stage.

We consider it completely indefensible that fusion energy research continues to acquire $300 million in support from the federal government, with over $20 billion committed in the last 50 years, while SSP gets zero financial support.

That’s right—fusion energy research: $300 million; SSP: $0. The federal government’s current portfolio of energy R&D is clearly not balanced.

While it remains to be seen how high on the list of critical issues facing the incoming administration, at least the subject of space solar power as an answer to energy needs has been opened, with substantial response from the public.
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G B Leatherwood 17 December 2008
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