A Plausible Political Justification for Space-Based Beamed Solar Power
I just finished the book The Next 100 Years. This is a book that offered me the pleasure of a gut-wrenching fiction, but had no characters other than nation-states. The narrative is powerful because it spins a web of logic based in first-principles. Given the speculative nature of the subject, some principles may prove to be wrong, but that’s just part of the game.
The crown jewel of this book is its story of the mid-century war. By that, of course, I mean the war of 2050. Out of the story of this war, the crown jewel is the introduction of space-based solar power as a strategic Manhattan-like wartime project. The genius of the author is the strategic factors that jump-started the program.
I’ll avoid “spoilers” as best I can, because some other components of the war are separable. You could change several aspects of the future-history while still preserving the calculus that leads to space solar power.
One Tough Sell
It’s hard to make space-based solar power make sense. Elon Musk has approached the point of outright ridicule, arguing that a modest efficiency gain must offset the added per-mass launch costs. Many authors have gone to the lengths of assuming lunar bases with mass drivers to manufacture and deliver the panels. Friedman, in his book, is agnostic about the specific launch architecture.
I find it almost impossible to imagine a private company commercializing space solar power that beams its output to the surface of the Earth. Even with heavy government NASA or DOD-based funding, I can not see it happening ever.
War Kickstarts Technology
This is probably by Friedman doesn’t even attempt to go that route. In the story here, there is an existing government program attempting to get us to deployment of this technology by 2050. That, I can believe. I can also believe that it’s not going anywhere. I can believe it because governments still fund Tokomak fusion today. There is no route to market, and we don’t even know the specifics of continuous containment yet.
But that all changes when war begins. Strike forces consist almost entirely of inter-continental hyper-sonic jets. This make targeted strikes on critical military targets and infrastructure. At first, it is more of the former, but as the war drags on, it is more of the latter.
The other key component is the introduction of some kind of war “suit” which enables strength enhancement for infantry and connects them to a network of war robots that hold the front-line. These are so heavily armored and defended that they are equivalent to modern day tanks. However, this type of suit (as opposed to a modern tank) is more prone to use batteries than it is to burn fuel. Exactly why seems slightly dubious. I think you have to assume that you can extend a grid to a few miles behind the battlefield and that the duration of the unit acting in battle (an evolution of “range anxiety”) is less important than the ability to release immense energy at once, along with the simplicity of pure-electric systems.
Electric grids, then, are bombed.
This makes sense, and it also makes sense that a distribution system for motor fuels will not be attractive compared to the electrical options. Still, they will need portable generating potential. For the US in 2050, the immense difficulty of beaming solar power to Earth is also a strange benefit as well. It would be impossible for competitor nations to replicate due to the control of space that the US enjoys.
Similar Connections for Other Energy Tech
A similar logic was always obvious for several other similar types of technologies. Particularly, I have in mind small modular nuclear reactors, and out of those I particularly have in mind ocean-based nuclear power plants. For a specific visual manifestation, I have in mind Flexblue. This kind of technology is like a queen piece in the energy chess game. It is also closely tied to control of the sea lanes, just like the control of space is tied to beamed solar power.
By locating the infrastructure either in space or in shipbuilding facilities, we can avoid the problems that power plants otherwise face, and otherwise cripple the growth of energy generation technology proliferation. A requirement is control of sea or space in these examples, but that is sure to be worth it for a nation which already competes for dominance in these arenas. Mercantilism and militarism support each other in this kind of endeavor. Ultimately, there is a great geopolitical benefit to be had as well. Energy is always a politically sensitive subject, and control of energy supply aids in accomplishing political objectives.
But, I would note that the causality only goes in the obvious direction. Beamed solar power would probably make sense if you already were running a space navy. The economic motivation doesn’t come first, although the economic impact may be far-reaching fundamentally transformative (this is the author’s story of the 2050s and 2060s).