Entering Space – Ultimate Energy Resources?

I recently read a book called ‘Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization‘, by Robert Zubrin. I’ve been covering a lot of this literature as I think it may have a lot to tell us about how to best tackle a slew of 21st century problems in planetary resource management.

Zubrin’s work examines, using an evidence-based approach, the prospects and challenges humanity will face in setting up colonies on other planets, moons and minor bodies of the solar system, and eventually, in expanding to interstellar realms. I’ll explore many of these ideas in future posts, but for now, I wanted to kick up some discussion on two tables Zubrin presents in Chapter 8, on sources of energy.

First, he does a simple projection of future human energy use through to the year 2200. The presumption is that as our reliance on energy-intensive technology continues to grow, our demand will skyrocket — especially if we pursue extraterrestrial settlement and geoengineering.

He then shows where the largest potential energy resources lie…

As background, here is a quote from the accompanying text  (sourced here, along with many other good quotes — scroll down to the end to see his rebuttal of Michio Kaku!):

To glimpse the probable nature of the human condition a century hence, it is first necessary for us to look at the trends of the past. The history of humanity’s technological advance can be written as a history of ever-increasing energy utilization. If we consider the energy consumed not only in daily life but in transportation and the production of industrial and agricultural goods, then Americans in the electrified 1990s use approximately three times as much energy per capita as their predecessors of the steam and gaslight 1890s, who in turn had nearly triple the per-capita energy consumption of those of pre-industrial 1790s.

Some have decried this trend as a direct threat to the world’s resources, but the fact of the matter is that such rising levels of energy consumption have historically correlated rather directly with rising living standards and, if we compare living standards and per-capita energy consumption of the advanced sector nations with those of the impoverished Third World, continue to do so today. This relationship between energy consumption and the wealth of nations will place extreme demands on our current set of available resources. In the first place, simply to raise the entire present world population to current American living standards (and in a world of global communications it is doubtful that any other arrangement will be acceptable in the long run) would require increasing global energy consumption at least ten times. However, world population is increasing, and while global industrialization is slowing this trend, it is likely that terrestrial population levels will at least triple before they stabilize. Finally, current American living standards and technology utilization are hardly likely to be the ultimate (after all, even in the late twentieth-century America, there is still plenty of poverty) and will be no more acceptable to our descendants a century hence than those of a century ago are to us. All in all, it is clear that the exponential rise in humanity’s energy utilization will continue.

In 1998, humanity mustered about 14 watts of power (1 terawatt, TW, equals 1 million megawatts, MW, of power). At the current 2.6 percent rate of growth we will be using nearly 200 TW by the year 2100. The total anticipated power utilization and the cumulative energy used (starting in 1998) is given in Table 8.1. By way of comparison, the total known or estimated energy resources are given in Table 8.2.


I ought to point out that I, and others, have used different assumptions about the availability of uranium in sea water and its recharge rate due to riverbed erosion, to come up with a more optimistic for nuclear fission with full fuel recycling (i.e., the possibility of supplying about 30 TW years, per year, for a billion years or more). But the main point about the massive resources and almost unlimited expansion potential available to Deuterium-He3 fusion, if we can close out this research and access the fuel, is hard to ignore.

The broader question is, how constrained is our thinking in regards to ultimate energy resources? Should humanity be planning to significantly and permanently extend our reach into space  now — BEFORE we manage to solve all of our myriad Earthly sustainability problems, in the hope that this will supply us with the very tools needed to deliver adequate solutions? Food for thought.

I personally think that in terms of civilization building, we can ‘walk and chew gum at the same time’, and really ought to be hedging our bets (to mix metaphors)…


NOTE:  In line with the new 2014 approach to BNC, this is the first in a series of short “Aside” blog posts (1-2 a week) that are focused on single, relatively simple points, with the goal of stirring informed discussion and debate. The plan is for these Asides to be regular features of the site, with the longer and more elaborate information/education posts (written mostly by the stable of regular BNC guest posters) cropping up every once in a while (roughly 1-2 per month).

Book Review: “Energy in Australia – Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth”

Guest post by John MorganJohn runs R&D programmes at a Sydney startup company. He has a PhD in physical chemistry, and research experience in chemical engineering in the US and at CSIRO. He is a regular commenter on BNC.

You can follow John on Twitter @JohnDPMorgan

Let’s get one thing out of the way – the parochial title.  Graham Palmer’s Energy in Australia is not about Australia, any more than, say, David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air is about the UK.  Both books make use of local case studies, but they are both concerned with fundamental aspects of our energy system that will interest readers regardless of nationality.

Likewise, peak oil and Asia’s economic growth are minor players in this story, characters that don’t really warrant top billing.  So, what is this book really about?

EiA is an extended discussion of the high level issues in energy system transformation, in particular, energy return on energy invested (EROEI), intermittency, and electricity grid control.  A short, punchy book of only 80 or so pages, it is broken down into many bite-sized pieces and is an easy read for the non-specialist, despite being published under an academic imprint.

The book argues that solar and wind exist within the existing fossil fuel / synchronous grid framework, and have a role to play in abating emissions from those plants, and in network peak load support, but that they do not allow us to break out of that system.  That would require an energy source with high EROEI driving synchronous generators that can progressively replace those driven by coal and gas in the existing grid.

The system level issues are summarized by Palmer in the figure below, as they relate to plans for renewable energy.  Many proposals for 100% renewable energy systems put together some combination of wind, solar, biogas, etc. that meets historical demand.  As Palmer puts it,

The underlying theme of 100% renewable plans is the assumption that through increased complexity, an optimal set of synergies can be discovered and exploited.  The difficulty is that the plans operate solely within the shallow “simulation layer” … With few exceptions, little consideration is given to the deeper first- and second-order layer issues.

The first half of the book explores those deeper issues, and is a fascinating description of the operation of the grid, its control schemes, the role of baseload, peak demand management, storage, capacity factors, availability and so on.  This really should be compulsory reading for anyone serious about a transition to a low emissions electricity grid.

Fig3-1PalmerA startling figure from this discussion is the world’s electricity generation mix expressed, not as contributions from coal, gas, hydro, wind etc. as we usually see, but as the fraction from “synchronous rotary machines” – that is, mechanical generators with rotating shafts which are synchronized to the electrical frequency of the grid.  96% of global electricity is provided by such machines.  In a sense, we have almost no diversity in electrical generation.

These machines are ubiquitous because they offer a solution to the historically difficult problem of grid control – making sure that electricity generation exactly meets demand at any instant.  This is done by frequency stabilization – the rotation of all the generators on the grid is synchronized, and as loads are connected to the grid, the rotational frequency drops, which is the signal used to bring on board new generation.

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‘Pandora’s Promise’ documentary movie in Australia

For my Australian readers, October 2013 is THE month for green energy. It’s at last time to book your tickets to see Pandora’s Promise!

You can get further details at the Antidote Films/Cinema Ventures website, here.

I’ve been involved with the movie, in various small ways, for the last few years — I guess ever since the core ideas for it really started crystalising in (Academy-Award® nominated Director) Robert Stone’s mind around the time of a dinner party and discussion at Tom Blees’ house back in 2010. I provided some advice (along with many others) during production and promotion, and recently got a chance to help Robert out during the St Petersburg (Russia) première back in June. As proof of my aid, I even got a signed version of the above poster from Robert, which is now proudly up on my office door! So the movie definitely has the BNC Stamp of Authenticity. This is the real deal. The movie that all aspiring ‘Promethean environmentalists’ (even if you don’t know you are one yet) NEED to see.

Some more details:

HERE is a PDF brochure that you can download and distribute.

Please attend. Bring your family and friends.  You really owe it to yourself to see this deeply thought-provoking and highly entertaining movie.

You also owe it to the pro-nuclear environmentalist community in Australia to make damned sure that every screening across the country is jam-packed with enthusiastic people who create an atmosphere throbbing with admirable neo-green fervour! Indeed, I think that if we are ever going to get an effective social movement mobilised in this country around the critical issue of  ALLOWING clean, zero-carbon nuclear energy to compete and flourish in Australia, we need to show that people care. And we need to educate them. Watching this movie is a terrific step along that road.

Tickets are available to purchase online below, or at the door. They include a complimentary drink and entry to the screening and exclusive Q&A with Robert Stone and others:

Melbourne: 8/10/13 Classic Cinema, Elsternwick. Buy tickets.
Adelaide: 9/10/13 Mercury Cinema, Morphett St. Buy tickets.
Perth: 10/10/13 Luna Palace Cinemas, Nedlands. Buy tickets.
Hobart*: 10/10/13 10th State Cinema, Elizabeth St. Buy tickets.
Canberra: 11/10/13 The Arc Cinema, McCoy Circuit. Buy tickets.
Sydney: 12/10/13 Hoyts, Moore Park. Buy tickets.
Sydney: 13/10/13 Hoyts, Moore Park. Buy tickets.
Brisbane: 14/10/13 Bemac Cinema, Kangaroo Point. Buy tickets.

* Robert Stone will not be attending Hobart screening


Got a Comment?

To leave your comment and read other reactions, please go to the dedicated Discussion Thread on the BNC Forums:


Advanced fission and fusion technologies for sustainable nuclear energy

Last week, the Australian Academy of Science held their annual meeting in Canberra, and the final day’s event was focused on energy technology. The symposium was called “Power to the people: the science behind the debate“. I was invited as one of the speakers, to discuss next-generation nuclear power technologies and their role in decarbonising our fossil-focused economy.

The description of my talk, as it appeared in the programme, is as follows:

Title: Advanced fission and fusion technologies for sustainable nuclear energy

Abstract: Next-generation nuclear energy – including advanced fission reactors, fusion-fission hybrids and pure hydrogen-fusion designs  – offers a means to produce vast quantities of zero-carbon and reliable electricity and process heat. For fission, new designs that are now ready for commercial demonstration can take advantage of the superior physical properties of plutonium in a fast neutron spectrum to convert essentially all of the mined uranium into useful fissile material and abundant electricity.

The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) and similar ‘Generation IV designs’ can change in a fundamental way the outlook for global energy on the necessary massive scale. These resource extension properties multiply the amount of usable fuel by a factor of over a hundred, allowing demand to be met for many centuries with fuel already at hand, by a technology that is known today, and whose properties are largely established. Demonstrating a credible and acceptable way to safely recycle used nuclear fuel will also clear a socially acceptable pathway for nuclear fission to be a major low-carbon and sustainable energy source for this century.

For fusion, there are exciting medium- to long-term prospects, based on work now being done on the International Thermonuclear Reactor Experiment (ITER) and on hybrid fusion-fission designs that use molten-salt coolants and use thorium and hydrogen isotopes as fuel.

Replacement of fossil fuels is urgently needed to sustain global society whilst mitigating environmental impacts, and sustainable forms of nuclear energy offer a realistic and effective way of achieving this goal.

Bio: Barry Brook is a Professor and ARC Future Fellow at the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute, where he holds the Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change. He has published three books, over 200 refereed scientific papers, and regularly writes popular articles for the media. His awards include the 2006 Australian Academy of Science Fenner Medal and the 2010 Community Science Educator of the Year. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of extinction, analysis of energy systems for carbon mitigation, and simulation models of the synergies of human impacts on the biosphere.

Here is the HD recording of my talk – recorded professionally by the Academy, which includes many close ups of my slides. The talk runs for 28 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions. I trust you will find it useful, and be sure to pass on the link so that others can watch it and be more informed – and entertained!

There were a wide range of talks presented, generally of high quality, and many of which were also recorded. The full video cast can be viewed here. Below is the programme:

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100 Per Cent Renewables Study Needs a Makeover

Guest Post by Martin Nicholson. Martin studied mathematics, engineering and electrical sciences at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a Masters degree in 1974. He published a peer-reviewed book on low-carbon energy systems in 2012The Power Makers’ Challenge: and the need for Fission Energy


In late April 2013, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released its draft report titled 100 Per Cent Renewables Study – Draft Modelling Outcomes. The study was commissioned by the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency (DCCEE) to explore future scenarios for the National Electricity Market (NEM) fuelled entirely by renewable resources.

AEMO provided scenarios for a 100 per cent renewable electricity supply at 2030 and 2050 along with the generation plant and the major transmission networks required to support each scenario. The study included estimated capital cost requirements for each scenario and an indicative estimate of the impact on customer energy prices.

AEMO found that a 100 per cent renewable system is likely to require much higher capacity reserves than a conventional power system. They estimated that the generation nameplate capacity could need to be over twice the maximum customer demand.

Assuming the reason for commissioning the report was to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electricity generation, it is disappointing that the DCCEE didn’t also request that nuclear power be included along with the renewable resources.

According to AEMO, to convert the NEM to a 100 per cent renewable system will cost at least $219 to $332 billion. This is excluding significant costs for the land (which could be as much as 5,000 sq kms) and augmentation of the distribution network. This is starting to sound worse than the recent high-speed train proposal from Melbourne to Brisbane.

Example of supply and demand in a winter week (scenario 2 in 2050)

According to the Australian Energy Regulator, the current NEM has an installed capacity of 46 GW made up of 26 GW of coal plants, 9 GW of gas, 8 GW of hydro and just over 2 GW of wind.

The following analysis is partly based on a paper I will present at a conference in July this year.

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