Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Space-based Solar Power or Dyson Specks

There has been a bit of buzz around space-based solar power (SBSP) and when a friend chatted me up about it today, I decided to organize my opinions about the technology and share them here.  SBSP is not a new idea.  They amount to the smallest useful Dyson Sphere.  SBSP is ugly so I’ll rename them Dyson Specks for the remainder of this essay.

The idea, as you can read in more detail from the links, is that a geostationary satellite captures some energy from the sun and beams it down to earth where collectors gather it and convert it to electricity.  Sustainable, carbon neutral, green energy.  A veritable panacea and a damn sexy concept for anyone who’s ever turned their eyes skyward in wonder.

As a bit of an aside, the media coverage mentions “beam” and “microwave” when it concerns getting the energy to the ground.  I will call this “beam” what it is by referring to it as a “laser” from here forward.

Other articles discuss the engineering difficulties so I’ll ignore them here.  Let’s take a flight of fancy and say we can wave a magic wand and construct our Dyson Speck out of thin air.  What do we now have?  We have a pretty stellar (sorry) source of energy.  But there are side effects I haven’t heard mentioned yet.  I’ve heard that the laser could be some 10 km in diameter when it gets to the surface of the ground.  So we have a 10+ km diameter section of the earth permanently dedicated to receiving this energy safely.  This is not an insignificant alteration of the biosphere.

We also have a column of air 10 km in diameter and 120 km high that will be continuously heated by this microwave laser.  That’s a lot of air.  We may not be producing greenhouse gases anymore but now we’re heating the atmosphere directly with bonus solar radiation that would have otherwise sped out to the cosmos.  We’ve effectively increased the surface area of the earth.  This sounds like a great recipe for global warming to me.  If this technology becomes popular and we someday have 1000 of these satellites powering population centers all around the globe, how many watts of power will we be feeding directly into the atmosphere and what effect will that have on surface and ocean temperatures?  What about the impact on weather patterns?  One small benefit, I suppose would be the surreal and beautiful photos of the way these lasers would perforate clouds and otherwise manipulate atmospheric moisture.  But at what cost?

In order to keep the solar panels pointed at the sun, the satellite will have to expend a fair amount of energy to remain in position.  It will have to have fairly powerful propulsion to achieve this.  This subtle artifact leads me to my biggest concern about Dyson Specks.  The powerful propulsion mechanism required to keep the laser focused on the right spot while keeping the arrays pointed at the sun will make retargeting the laser swift and accurate.  What if the laser were fitted with a lens or mirror that it could use to focus its laser to, say 10 meters wide.  Now we have a weapon of mass destruction that can quickly target any point on half the globe with a push of a button.

The military says they are interested in this technology for providing power to tactical field operations, and I’m sure that is part of their motivation, but I think this is Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars) Redux.  What better way is there to furtively reinstate a controversial program than to greenwash it?


I’m sorta interested in politics

Once I realized that most of the world’s news outlets are commercial, for-profit enterprises with shareholders and all that implies, I precipitously dropped out of the world of the informed into the world of the blissfully unaware.  I think this may have happened fourteen or fifteen years ago when I was in high school.  Most of my close friends have continued to be amazed by my lack of connection to the world.  If I take their reactions as genuine, this aspect of my personality is perceived as high-minded aloofness and adds to my mystique and lovability.

NPR restored much of my confidence in the news media.  I was so excited and grateful, I immediately became a member of my local public radio.  But now that I don’t drive 45 minutes to work each way anymore (thankfully) I don’t listen to NPR regularly.  I slowly but surely slipped back into my comfort zone of being completely disconnected from the world and all the drama that news media drums up.  Aside from learning of Michael Jackson’s alleged death, I haven’t kept up with any current events but something is different this time.  I feel guilty for being comfortably out of touch.

I want to be informed.  I want to be able to discuss current events with my peers.  I am just still disillusioned by news media.  Even my beloved NPR colors their commentary (rather obviously) according to their ideology.  It just happens to more or less align with mine.  And, in an effort to be unbiased, they fall into the industry standard pattern of rattling off streams of statistics until my ears glaze over.  I find it numbing to listen to or to read statistics about the number of casualties in conflict X or the number of citizens unhappy about Y.  The relentless spewing of “facts” drives my brain to sleep.  The problem with news media is that they want to appear unbiased so they spew this cold, unfeeling trivia.  What I crave isn’t data in its pure form.  I crave to augment my experience by learning about yours.  Don’t simply recite factoids to me.  Tell me about how you experience the world.  Let those people directly affected by the calamities happening in their back yard explain the situation to me.  They might get the deathtoll wrong but their experience will transcend the data.  Technology has given the world enough interconnectedness to obviate the need for centralized clearinghouses for unbiased news.  To hell with feigning unbiasedness.  Give me bias.  Give me your bias.  To know you is to know myself a bit better.  That’s how I want to be informed.

So to that end, I am simultaneously ante’ing up by contributing my own experience and subscribing to a smattering of blogs as I discover ones I consider worthwhile.  Consider this my earnest foray into the world of distributed news media.  Bring on the medium as the m[e|a]ssage.  Perhaps in the economy of ideas, where relenquishing yours costs you nothing but I benefit from their reception, idealized social structures may emerge.  Maybe, one day, even I will be considered informed.