June 4th, 2010 may someday be remembered as being the day that the future changed. On this date, the privately built and financed Falcon-9 rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral. Why is event of such great significance?
To understand this we first need to consider where we--human civilization--are at as of mid-2010. Our global political economy is based upon hydrocarbon energy: coal, natural gas, and most especially, oil. Yet oil planetary production has likely peaked. Oil discoveries peaked in the mid-1960's, and discoveries of new oil have declined precipitously since then. Despite use of more sophisticated technology, future production must decline. Current production has been flat for six years now:
There are only a handful of coal exporting countries--principally the U.S., Australia and Russia. The quality of coal being mined now is decreasing. High grade, high energy content anthracite coal seams are being replaced by lower-quality, lower energy and more polluting, bituminous and sub-bituminous coals as anthracite deposits are exhausted. As a consequence of this the net energy produced by coal mining per year may already have peaked. Each succeeding year, less and less net energy will be gained from these inferior, energy-deficient coals, even though the total tons of mined coal will rise for several decades to come.
Natural gas is difficult to transport, creating mostly regional, pipeline based markets. For North America, maintaining current supplies requires use of resource-intensive (particularly water) and environmentally-damaging technologies, principally hydraulic fracturing, or "fraking" as it is commonly referred to. And supplies of this resource will inevitably begin to decline too.
The bottom line is simple: Future growth of the global economy, including maintaining the rapid development of China and India, cannot be sustained. Consequences of hydrocarbon use, principally rapid climate changes as heat builds up in the atmosphere and the oceans, will knock the Earth's climate out of energy balance.
Agriculture is a bet that we understand long-term weather well enough to reliably grow crops. This assumption is violated as the planet slips out of energy balance. Further, each calorie of food grown using "modern" agriculture requires input of about 10 calories of, ever scarcer, ever more expensive, hydrocarbon energy.
Worse yet, the entire global economy consists of debt-based money. Such money only has "value" if future economic growth can be reasonably anticipated to pay it back. Without this assumption the world economy must collapse.
Nothing on Earth, not nuclear, not solar, or wind, or tidal energy can fill the looming energy deficit. We appear to be doomed to civilizational collapse given that nothing on Earth can save us at this late hour.
Nothing on Earth"
That's where the space launch of the Falcon-9 rocket comes in. It was developed using private financing by a startup company, completely unaffiliated with the existing big aerospace sector. Elon Musk, co-founder of Pay Pal, sold his share of that internet company in order to self-finance the start-up of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or "SpaceX" as it is generally called, with $100 million of his own money back in 2002.[i] Musk's vision was to reduce the cost of access to space by a factor of 10 while simultaneously increasing safety and reliability by a factor of 10. All indications are that he is succeeding brilliantly.
SpaceX's smaller cargo rocket, the Falcon-1, was successfully test launched into orbit on July 14th, 2009. Now SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract from NASA to resupply the International Space Station beginning next year, following the retirement of the space shuttles. This resupply will be accomplished by means of the Dragon reusable spacecraft. This was launched as a prototype, atop the Falcon-9 rocket on June 4th, 2010. The Dragon payload capsule can also be configured to carry a crew of up to 7 astronauts to and from the International Space Station. It is anticipated that the Obama Administration will award SpaceX with a contract to transport US astronauts to and from the Space Station beginning in about 2012/2013.
How does this relate to our looming earthbound catastrophe? Consider that solar and wind energy is diffuse and also intermittent. Additionally, there is no effective way to store large amounts of energy indefinitely until it is needed. Batteries are inefficient and energy and resource intensive to fabricate anyway; pumping water uphill to be used to turn generators loses much of the original energy, etc. Finally, there is no existing way to move electricity around the world. There are only regional grids.
Back in the 1980's a study conducted by the US Department of Energy (DOE) found that power could be easily beamed, safely and efficiently from space in the form of microwaves. Power sent from a satellite in geosynchronous orbit can be beamed as microwaves to Earth with about 85% efficiency.[ii] What the study envisioned was actually collecting the power in space and sending it to a receiving station on the ground. This is pretty complex--although a California company founded in 2001, Solaren Corporation[iii], has signed a contract with California utility PG&E to do just that starting in 2016.[iv]
However, a simpler task would be to deploy a series of microwave reflectors to encircle the Earth in geosynchronous orbits. A single reflector could be deployed from a single Falcon-9 heavy lift rocket, which is able to hoist about 43,000 pounds of anything into that orbit. The reflector would be gossamer thin and would fold out from the payload shroud. Because it only needs to be reflective to microwaves--wire mesh basically--it could be invisible to the human eye by the way. Station keeping could be maintained essentially forever using an ion technology; such engines have already been developed and deployed for commercial satellite station keeping.[v] Even more efficient ion engines will soon be attached to the Space Station to maintain its altitude against orbital decay.[vi] These will then become available for space based power generation station keeping purposes. Ad Astra Rocket Company, founded in 2006 by astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz (who flew a record seven space shuttle missions), is actively developing this technology under contract from NASA.
I believe that solar, wind, tidal, hydro and geothermal energy can be captured wherever they are, fed into a local grid, and then relayed to another destination through an orbiting microwave reflector. The net efficiency of energy transmission from source to destination would be .85 (up to orbit) times .85 (down to Earth), or 72.25 percent efficiency. This wireless global power transmission grid would be accomplished without new power lines.
Wind energy from the sleeping night side of the planet can be instantly relayed into the regional wired power grids on the active day side. Energy from remote planetary locations can be effortlessly relayed to inhabited areas. By making renewable energy more available, it becomes both more efficient and more affordable. A geosynchronous orbit based global grid reduces or eliminates the energy storage problem, since energy can be used anywhere around the world that it is most needed instantly.