Sep 17 2009

Japan's New Space Energy Initiative Supports Maslow Window Forecasts

Special Thanks to Contributing Editors Carol Lane and Anny Wong for information and advice on this topic.

Just before last week’s International Symposium on Solar Energy in Space (in Toronto), Japan announced their spectacular new $ 21 B space-based solar power initiative. According to Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, the Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and IHI Corp. will lead a 15-company team that will build the first major solar power plant in space. Via microwaves, it will eventually beam enough energy back to Japan for nearly 300,000 houses.

Japan is betting that Space-Based Solar Power will make the future so bright, we’ll all need shades! Click sbsp.jpg.

Their giant, 1-gigawatt space power station will eventually have photovoltaic panels that span about 4 square kilometers. During the next few years, the team will focus on technology development for wireless transmission of electricity via microwaves. By 2015 — the anticipated opening of the next Maslow Window — JAXA plans to launch a satellite with solar panels and test the concept of power beaming into the atmosphere. “The government hopes to have the solar station fully operational in the 2030s.”

In both its timing and scale, Japan’s space-based solar power (SBSP) initiative is an impressive macro-engineering project (MEP) that practically screams, “The next Maslow Window is just around the corner!” Their project bespeaks the kind of extraordinary ebullience and technological vision that — over the last 200+ years — are rarely witnessed outside a Maslow Window.

It’s interesting to compare the timing of Japan’s new initiative with the energy-related forecasts of Stratfor’s George Friedman in The Next Hundred Years (2009). Friedman sees a bright future for SBSP, especially in the military realm:

The American obsession with space will intersect another intensifying problem: energy … NASA has been involved in research on space-based energy since the 1970s, in the form of space solar power … Vast numbers of photovoltaic cells … will be placed in geostationary orbit or on the surface of the Moon. The electricity will be converted to microwaves and transmitted to Earth …

And in the space-based energy project of the 2060s, it will become a feature of everyday life.

So Friedman sees gigawatt-level space-based solar power being developed in the 2060s — the decade just prior to the late 21st Century Maslow Window that theoretically opens near 2071. That’s certainly possible but it sounds a little pessimistic to me. I think it’s more likely that the growing global demand for clean energy, and our increasing experience with complex ISS-style operations in space, will drive SBSP development during the 2015 Maslow Window, as exemplified by Japan’s initiative.

My main concern with the timing of Japan’s Space Energy Initiative is it’s duration: It’s a 30 year program. Successfully executing any multi-decade, multi-billion USD space program is always dicey. This is because Maslow Windows rarely persist longer than a decade and the recent trend is toward shorter, not longer. Unless the inevitable early 1970s-style economic and social decline — i.e., the decay of ebullience — characteristic of the end of a Maslow Window is specifically included in program planning, the lesson of the last 200 years is that it will undermine the program. Just ask, for example, the astronauts chosen for the early 1970s Moon missions, Apollo 18 – 20. (They were canceled.)

In late 2007 the U.S. National Security Space Office (NSSO) released an enthusiastic report on Space-based solar power primarily in the context of strategic security. They conclude that Space-Based Solar Power…

is more technically executable than ever before and current technological vectors promise to further improve its viability…For the DoD specifically, beamed energy from space in quantities greater than 5 MW has the potential to be a disruptive game changer on the battlefield … there is enormous potential for energy security, economic development, advancement of general space-faring, improved environmental stewardship…for those nations (with SBSP).

According to NSSO, the issues for SBSP include Earth-to-orbit costs and the capability for large-scale operations in space, which will also challenge Japan’s space energy system. Since 1968, the U.S. has spent only $ 80 M on SBSP technology studies compared to, for example, about $ 21 B in fusion energy research since the 1950s.

Japan’s new space energy initiative provides a intriguing preview of the 2015 Maslow Window and the likely scale of its MEPs. Based on its timing and estimated cost, as well as technology development patterns near Maslow Windows over the last 200 years, I interpret Japan’s SBSP program as a secondary MEP that will develop during the 2015 Maslow Window. It’s similar in timing and relative scale with the Titanic ship, another secondary MEP (vs the primary MEP, the Panama Canal) that occurred during the Peary/Panama Maslow Window. Japan’s SBSP is also reminiscent of another secondary MEP — the Large Hadron Collider — except that LHC is a pre-Window project.

Given this framework, and using primary-to-secondary MEP cost ratios from previous Maslow Windows (back to the Dr. Livingstone/Suez Maslow Window) it’s possible to use the cost of Japan’s SBSP initiative to estimate the expense of the primary MEP (currently unknown in detail) for the 2015 Maslow Window. Cost ratios vary from 50 to 200 over the last 150 years, so a $21 B price tag for Japan’s project suggests primary MEP costs should range from $ 1 T to 4 T (current USD). This is similar to my earlier estimates from direct cost extrapolations into the 21st Century and cost ratios from other MEPs.

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