Energetic Engineering

By MICHAEL MATZA  |  July 1, 2008

The cost per satellite in 1977 dollars is projected at $25 billion. The first of perhaps 100 satellites could be in space by 1995. Glaser anticipates possibly 100 receiving antenna sites on US soil alone. For critics like Representative Ottinger, the immense costs and unknown risks of the project dictate a cautious attitude. Glaser disagrees. “This country will be spending many more billions in developing other energy sources as well, some based on fossils, some based on nuclear fusion, and some based on solar energy. There is no free lunch,” he replied to Ottinger’s on-air criticism of his plan.

Addressing himself to the issue of costs from the more comfortable setting of his own office, Glaser asserts that satellite solar power will be competitive with other forms of future energy production. Measured in square meters per megawatt per year, the accepted energy standard for ground-based power stations, satellite solar power, Glaser estimates, will be roughly equivalent to the unit cost of nuclear power generation.

Perhaps somewhat ingenuously, Glaser believes  that congressional appropriations of the magnitude he is asking — $200 million in the next five years — will not commit the US unalterably to his plan. “In the year 1985, for example, we will decide if we should move ahead with the next phase of satellite solar power, and there is no reason to assume that the answer will be yes if it isn’t resource-conserving, if it isn’t competitive, if it doesn’t make sense. Keep in mind that the whole purpose of this kind of planning is to do it differently than we’ve done the SST and the nuclear power development. We’ve learned. Most of the things on the front end, the things we are providing for now, are really the environmental factors. Essentially, what we are doing with the satellite is preparing ourselves for the Environmental Impact Statement — at the beginning of the project, not at its end.”

 

For Glaser, the sensibility of solar power was evident long before the current 11th-hour romance with the sun.

“Go back 100 years,” he challenges. “The major attraction at the Paris Exposition of 1878 was a sun-powered steam engine which drove a printing press which published a newspaper called Le Soleil. 1878! In 1901 they had solar-powered irrigation pumps working in California. In 1913 there were solar-powered pumps drawing water from the Nile. Twenty years ago the Russians worked on solar-power towers of the type we just completed last year in Albuquerque.”

Despite his inclination to technical description, Glaser does find some truth in the common wisdom that the solar alternative will not be fully utilized until someone finds a way to make a buck from the sun.

“I think, in the vernacular, I would agree with that. In other words, it won’t be fully utilized until there is a profit motive. And it has nothing to do with capitalism or socialism. It has to be beneficial to society. Now you define what ‘beneficial to society’ means. In our society it means somebody has to make a profit, and he pays taxes, and that’s how our economy percolates. In a socialist state there are other definitions for benefit. But basically no one is going to do anything until it makes economic sense, social sense.”

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