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SSP Makes Strange Bedfellows October 18, 2008

Posted by shubber in CRATS, distracting PR, gauntlet being dropped, hot air, public service announcement, sbsp, smack talk, solar power, space, Space Solar Power.

It appears that Dr. Zubrin and I agree on something after all…

A recent email exchange between proponents of Space Solar Power (or as we sometime lovingly refer to them: those who gulp from the space kool-aid punch bowl), which focused on the cost of access to space and the apparent closing of the business case when we get launch costs down to $200/kg, led to this sage bit of wisdom from Dr. Zubrin:

The cost of transporting solar panels to Arizona is less than $1/lb.

That is why SSP is total bullshit.

Well said.



1. kert - October 18, 2008

Knee jerk comments are total bullshit. SSP could very well turn out to be the enabling technology for extended planetary exploration.
Phoenix is in process of slow death right now because there isnt a satellite circling overhead, beaming down just enough power to preserve it for over winter.
Same for for surviving the two weeks of lunar night.

2. libs0n - October 20, 2008

Some things:

Space solar power has at least two advantages over terrestrial solar power: the increase in the sun’s rays that it receives from being above the atmosphere, and the 24 hour collection time from not being in a planetary day night cycle. It’s this second one that has the implications that most miss with respect to the market that it can supply: baseload power generation. Baseload power is not a market terrestrial solar power can effectively compete in due to its inherent intermittency, among other things. So its a mistake to directly compare the two as if they will service the same ends.

Also, the transport cost for solar power in Arizona tells us nothing about how much that reflects in the price of the end product, and whether or not SSP with its advantages(+drawbacks) can compete even given this 200 fold increase in transport costs. It’s not all about transportation costs, as I pointed out above. And tell me, what is the transportation cost of electricity from Arizona solar power to me given that where the hell I am is over 2000 miles from there.

That is why the supposed profoundness of this quip is bullshit.

3. Eric - October 21, 2008

“Phoenix is in process of slow death right now because there isnt a satellite circling overhead, beaming down just enough power to preserve it for over winter.”

As a Phoenician, I am WAY confused about this comment. Are you saying we’re freezing in the winter? Or were you being fasticious?

4. kert - October 22, 2008

That’s Phoenix lander, on Martian north pole. This being a space blog, it never occured me to qualify that.

5. Ian Woollard - November 17, 2008

Dr, Zubrin’s comment isn’t even wrong.

The question is not what the transportation costs to some random place, the question is what the cost per watt is after installation.

I wrote a spreadsheet to project the cost of energy from solar panels placed in orbit. Even after allowing for the greater solar irradiation in orbit, I found the electricity was too expensive.

After a lot of analysis I found the problem- solar panels are expensive!!!! I’m not kidding- the projection was that the rocketry actually turned out cheaper than the panels using standard cost modelling!

After a lot more analysis I found a solution- the economies of scale on the solar panel is likely to bring the costs down to a cost that was actually worth doing. After adding that factor I got a wholesale electricity cost of about 5-15c/kWh.

It still probably wasn’t worth doing though. The problem wasn’t that it didn’t have ROI, it was a reasonable ROI, it was more that it didn’t have a high enough ROI to make it worth funding. Businesses normally want more like 30% ROI, particularly on relatively high risk things like this, but this was more like 10-15%.

6. Paul F. Dietz - December 8, 2008

I vaguely recall a study (pointed out by G. Landis, IIRC) where it was concluded that putting a nuclear reactor in GEO, then beaming the power to earth, would be cheaper than putting a solar collector in space. Of course it’s even cheaper to put the nuclear reactor on the ground.

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