Beamed Energy and the Economics of Space Based Solar Power

H. Keith Henson
Founder L5 Society, (retired) Abstract. For space based solar power to replace fossil fuel, it must sell for 1-2 cents per kWh. To reach this sales price requires a launch cost to GEO of ~$100/kg. Proposed to reach this cost figure at 100 tonne/hour are two stages to GEO where a Skylon-rocket-plane first stage provides five km/sec and a laser stage provides 6.64 km/sec. The combination appears to reduce the cost to GEO to under $100/kg at a materials flow rate of ~1 million tonnes per year, enough to initially construct 200 GW per year of power satellites. An extended Pro Forma business case indicates that peak investment to profitability might be ~$65 B. Over a 25-year period, production rises to two TW per year to undercut and replace most other sources of energy. Energy on this scale solves other supply problems such as water and liquid fuels. It could even allow removal of CO2 from the air and storage of carbon as synthetic oil in empty oil fields. Keywords: SBSP Space Based Solar Power, Fossil Fuel, Rocket Plane, Skylon, Economics. PACS: 88.05.Lg

Beamed energy has been part of space-based solar-power (SBSP) design since Dr. Peter Glaser first proposed it in 1968. The standard proposal uses microwaves to transmit energy from geosynchronous orbit (GEO) to the surface of the earth. This paper analyzes a second use of beamed energy, laser ablation propulsion, to make building power satellites economical.1 Space-based solar power (SBSP) is arguably the cleanest source of energy available. Unfortunately, SBSP makes no sense economically with current transport systems into space [1]. This is in spite of the PG&E deal for 200 MW with Solaren (April 2009). On the other hand, huge power projects such as dams often take decades. Three Gorges Dam was proposed 90 years before it became operational. Grand Coulee Dam was discussed for 13 years and took nine to build. Nuclear reactors take more than a decade to construct. Perhaps the time has come for SBSP. We surely need some energy source to replace fossil fuels, particularly oil as the extraction rate peaks, and coal if we are concerned about CO2. CO2 will acidify the oceans if it does nothing else.


The technical work on lasers and geosynchronous redirection mirrors is primarily that of Dr. Jordin Kare

So, what are the prospects of space based solar power (SBSP) displacing fossil fuels over the next few decades? Without radical reductions in transportation cost, they are not good.

The reason is the high cost of lifting power satellite parts from the earth to GEO (or even to LEO) with rockets [2]. If space-based solar power is to replace fossil fuels without government mandates it must be substantially less expensive. Since coal-fired plants produce power for around four cents per kWh, the target of this discussion will be two cents per kWh. To displace oil requires an even lower cost, around one-cent per kWh. A penny a kWh translates into dollar-a-gallon synthetic fuels made from hydrogen and carbon dioxide from the air. ( The first step for an economic analysis is a projected income. There are 8766 hours in an average year, 8000 hours if the energy is available 91% of the time. A power satellite would generate $80 of revenue per kW per year at one cent per kWh. For a ten-year payback at $80 per year, the permissible investment would be $800 per kW. At two cents per kWh or a 20-year payback, the maximum investment could rise to $1600 per kW or $1.6 B per GW. (A ten-year payback is simplistic, but good enough for rough analysis.) Reaching this figure requires a launch cost to GEO of less than $100/kg. This is about a 200-fold reduction in current costs. Others also recognize the need for this much reduction.2 3 For reasons rooted in physics and chemistry, it is unlikely that chemical rockets alone can reach this figure, even to LEO.4

Humans currently use about 15 TW of energy from all sources. Growth, replacing power plants and bringing the developing world (China, India, Africa, etc.) up to developed world energy use levels requires 25 TW of new power over the next 30 years. It is physically possible to obtain at least 177 TW from SBSP [3]. Twenty-five TW is a reasonable amount of power satellite production in that length of time. Starting small (a few hundreds of GW per year) in 5-7 years would mean an average production of one TW per year. A linear increase over 25 years would build up to a production rate of two TW per year. A capacity of 0.2 TW per year (200 GW) within

"Transporting panels to the solar station 36,000 kilometers above the earth's surface will be prohibitively costly, so Japan has to figure out a way to slash expenses to make the solar station commercially viable, said Hiroshi Yoshida, Chief Executive Officer of Excalibur KK, a Tokyo-based space and defense-policy consulting company.”These expenses need to be lowered to a hundredth of current estimates," Yoshida said by phone from Tokyo. pid=20601101&sid=aJ529lsdk9HI 3 To be competitive with other power sources, Maness figures that the powersat system's launch costs would have to be around $100 per pound—which is roughly one-hundredth of the current asking price. Launch costs may be heading downward, thanks in part to the rise of SpaceX's Falcon rockets, but Maness can't yet predict when the charts tracing cost and benefit will cross into the profitable zone. (William Maness, chief executive officer of Everett, Wash.-based PowerSat Corp) 4 The alternative is building power satellites in LEO and self-powering them up to GEO. This has been widely proposed. However, the transfer typically takes months and moves the power sat through the orbits of a great deal of space junk. Even back in the 1970s, when Boeing studied the power satellites, there were serious concerns about their being severely damaged on the way up.

14 years of the project start (7 years from the first power satellite) will be the target of the model. The flow of materials required to displace fossil fuels over a 25-year period is in the hundreds to thousands of tons per hour (200 GW per year at 5000 t per GW is a million tons, a little over 100 t per hour). This number is sensitive to the kg/kW. In the literature, this number has ranged from small fractions of a kg/kW to 10 kg/kW. The rest of this analysis uses five kg/kW, resulting in a robust satellite.

For optical reasons, a 2.5-GHz transmission power satellite smaller than a GW is not useful (in the sense of delivering substantial power to the grid). Using five kg/kW, a GW demonstration power satellite will mass 5000 tonnes. Raised to GEO at the current cost of $20 million per t, the transport alone would be $100 B. It is low cost transport rather than power collection or microwave transmission that is the showstopper for power satellites. That’s what needs to be demonstrated. Fortunately, building the transport system and a dozen demonstration power satellites costs less than building one demonstration power satellite with expendable rockets.

At the risk of boring readers with high-school physics, the rocket equation5 and the low exhaust velocity of chemical fuels are at the root of the high cost. (1) Where: m0 is the initial total mass, including propellant. m1 is the final total mass. ve is the effective exhaust velocity. ( is the delta-v. m0/m1 is the mass ratio. Here it is in graphical form:



There are proposals for getting into space that are not related to the rocket equation: space elevators, gas guns, electromagnet catapults and the launch loop, to name a few. They all present engineering challenges but are not ruled out by physics.

35 30 25 20 15 10 5 0 0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4

FIGURE 1. Mass ratio vs. multiple of Ve.
35 30 25 20 15 10 5 0 0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18

FIGURE 2. Mass ratio for LOX/LH2 vs. Delta V of rocket in km/sec.
120 100 80 60 40 20 0 0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18
120 100 80 60 40 20 0 0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18

FIGURE 3. Propellant fraction.

FIGURE 4. Payload and structural fraction.

Rockets are more than payload and propellant. The amount of structure (tanks, rocket engines, landing gear) in a rocket, especially a reusable rocket, is subject to argument. This example uses 15%.
100 80 60 40 20 0 -20 0 4 8 10 12 14 FIGURE 5. Useful 2 fraction vs.6velocity for LOX/LH2. 16 18


As you can see from the graph, the useful fraction (structure and payload) for this set of assumptions goes below zero short of 9 km/sec (9.3-10 km/sec is the velocity needed to reach LEO, LEO is only ~8 km/sec, but gravity losses and air drag add an additional 1.5-2 km/sec). The above chart explains why there are no single-stage-to-LEO LOX/LLH2 rockets. An extreme effort to reduce structural mass might get a single-stage rocket to orbit with a pointless near-zero payload. Worse, power satellite parts need to go to GEO, not LEO. Reaching GEO requires ~14 km/sec delta V from the surface of the earth, a velocity that is far beyond a chemical single stage. Chemical rockets typically take three stages and a liftoff to payload ratio of 60 to one. That is, six thousand tonnes, twice the size of a Saturn V rocket, would lift 100 t to GEO. To support a hundred-t-per-hour parts delivery to GEO for power-satellite construction would require launching a 6000 tonne, threestage rocket every hour. This is beyond the imagination of the author.

The rocket equation indicates that 15-km/sec laser ablation propulsion will deliver about 40% of the liftoff mass to GEO. The simple reaction mass required (a large block of dirty ice) means the payload is approximately the non-propellant fraction of the liftoff mass. Unlike chemical rockets, laser ablation propulsion can tailor the exhaust velocity within limits. Laser ablation requires very high laser power for inconveniently small payloads (several GW per t of payload.). Building 25,000 t power satellites out of one ton payloads would be very involved. From an engineering perspective, the minimum desired payload size is 15 t, and 25 t or more would be better. Reaction propulsion is most efficient when matched to the current velocity. (All the energy goes into the rocket if the exhaust is left behind at rest.) Having high exhaust velocity at low vehicle velocity is very inefficient—in the limiting case zero.

6 5 4 3 2 1 0 0 5 10 15 20 25 30

FIGURE 6. Mass ratio vs. velocity for 15 km/sec laser propulsion.

Reaction Engines' Skylon beats the rocket equation does by using compressed air it collects along the way instead of oxygen up to Mach 5.5 and 28 km. Flying as an aircraft, it has an equivalent exhaust velocity of 10.5 km/sec. It then switches to internal oxygen for the rest of the acceleration to LEO. Working backwards from the payload and structure mass, it has a remarkable 4.726 km/sec equivalent exhaust velocity. 6

FIGURE 7. Skylon. Takes off from runway, 12 t to LEO.

Skylon is projected to place about 12 tonnes in LEO, but the expected cost ($167/kg at $2 million per flight and 12 t to LEO) is too high for power satellites. If

The velocity gain to LEO is 7460 m/sec. With the earth's rotation, it is 7923 m/sec, which is in LEO. Mass ratio is 275,000/56731 or 4.6474. Natural log is 1.57845, 7460/1.57845 = 4726 m/sec equivalent exhaust velocity (if Skylon were a rocket).

10 tons of that reached GEO (unlikely), the cost would be $200/kg. Higher flight rates would lower this cost somewhat, but not enough to go below the $100 or less target.
200 180 160 140 120 100 80 60 40 20 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

FIGURE 8. Payload (tonnes) vs. Skylon velocity in km/s.

200 180 160 140 120 100 80 60 40 20 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

FIGURE 9. Dollars per kg vs. velocity, $2M/flight.

It is impractical to use either single stage chemical or laser for the entire 14 km/sec to GEO. From basic physics, it makes sense to use higher exhaust velocity when the vehicle is moving fast. The rest of this paper analyzes a Skylon first stage and a relatively large and heavy laser second stage and then looks at an economic model using this combination to build power satellites. Optimizing the relative velocity contributions of the first and second stage for minimum cost at a particular materials flow rate is complex, especially as more parameters such as launch angle for the laser stage are allowed to vary. However, a rough estimate from the graphical information for Skylons and lasers indicates that the laser-stage mass will be 50-65,000 kg, its mass ratio around 2, the flight rate will be in the range of 3-4 flights per hour, and the cost under $100/kg, meeting the goal for economical power satellites.

To examine a specific flight path, a Skylon could boost a 50-tonne laser stage to 66 km at 5 km/sec [4]. At 20 deg the horizontal and vertical velocities are respectively 4.609 and 1.71 km/sec. With this vertical and horizontal velocity, the Skylon continues up for 275 seconds, reaching an altitude of 300 km. It travels about 3000 km downrange before coming back into the atmosphere. There may be enough performance margin in the Skylon for it to keep enough hydrogen on board to fly back to the landing site. It is possible the reduced reentry stress will increase the life of the Skylon airframes. Forty seconds after the end of boost, the Skylon and the laser stage separate at 130 km (chosen to keep atmospheric heating of the cargo doors within limits). With laser propulsion of 8 m/sec2 (82% of a g), the laser stage takes 676 seconds to reach GTO velocity (10.15 km/sec). Unlike the Skylon, the laser stage continues to gain altitude because it exceeds orbital velocity before its upward momentum is exhausted.
800 700 600 500 400 300 200 100



FIGURE 10. Altitude in km vs. down range in km from takeoff point, 20 deg launch angle at 5 km/sec. (GTO is geosynchronous transfer orbit, 1/8th of the circumference of the earth is 5000 km.)
14 12 10 8 6 4 2 0 0 1000 2000 3000 4000 5000 6000 7000 8000

FIGURE 11. . km/s vs. down range in km, 20 deg launch angle at 5 km/sec

Fifteen hours later, (1.5 elliptical orbits) the laser stage is in position to be accelerated again for 182 seconds to enter geosynchronous orbit.

FIGURE 12. High acceleration laser boost orbits as suggested by Dr. Stuart Eves, Surrey Satellite Technology. The laser stage makes 1 1/2 orbits so the redirection mirrors will be in the correct place to circularize the orbit at GEO. With this geometry, the launch window is always open.

Total laser time is 838 seconds, comfortably short of 900 secondss so the laser could accelerate four upper stages per hour. With a 4-GW laser, the payload is 23,600 kg for a mass ratio of just over two.
45000 40000 35000 30000 25000 20000 15000 10000

FIGURE 13. Laser stage payload in kg to GEO vs. laser power in GW

At 100 flights per day (35,000 a year) Reaction Engines (Skylon's designers) estimates the flights to cost $2 million each. Some of their investment cost is already

incorporated in the Pro Forma, so $2 million is probably high. With this adjustment, the cost per flight might be under $1 million. At $2 million per flight, it costs $40 per kg to lift a 50,000 kg laser stage (well within Skylon’s capacity swapping propellant for cargo). Since 47% of this gets to GEO, the Skylon part is about $85/kg. Assuming a laser cost of $10 per watt, a 4GW laser will cost $40 billion. Written off over ten years, the laser will cost $4 B per year. The transport system will deliver 826,000 t/year or over 0.8 B kg/year. The capital cost per kg would be about $5. The lasers require 8 GW at 50 percent efficiency. From the earlier calculations, a kW for a year at 1 cent would cost $80; a GW-year would be $80 M or $400 million at five cents per kWh. The power bill for 8 GW at this relatively high cost power would be $3.2 B per year, or $4 per kg. The total would be $94 per kg. Doubling the laser power would increase the laser cost to $18 per kg. However, the cargo per launch delivered to GEO would rise to 32,000 kg. The graphs are based on a 50,000 kg laser stage, 5km/sec initial velocity, 8 m/sec2 laser acceleration.





Figure 14. Dollars per kg vs. laser GW, $2M per flight.
120 100 80 60 40 20 0

Figure 15. Dollars per kg vs. laser GW, $1M per flight.











This combination of Skylon and large propulsion lasers should reduce the cost to lift one million tonnes of power satellite parts per year to GEO to less than $100 per kg. This permits electrical power cost of 2 cents per kWh or less with good prospects for reduction (over a decade) to one cent per kWh or even less. This scale of

industrial activity in space would make the exploitation of resources from the Moon and asteroids attractive.

It is not enough to compute how much space-based solar power would cost with a mature transportation system after the R&D has been paid off. For SBSP to play a part in our future energy needs, the rockets, lasers, ground and the space-side infrastructure must be developed and deployed. A substantial part of them (but not all) must be paid for without income from power satellite sales. The question is how deep you go into the hole before pulling out. Having a cost model for the transportation development (Skylon, lasers), power satellites' mass, and an estimate for the infrastructure (habitats, construction jigs, etc.) it is possible to construct a rough financial model to see if the business case closes. (I.e., does it make a profit? If so, how long does it take?) The financial model uses Reaction Engine's development numbers. Development time has been somewhat compressed to five years starting in 2010. The first vehicle flies late in 2015. Production Skylons in the Pro Forma model decline from $450 M to $292 M after 10,000 flights and vehicle life increases from 200 flights to 500. Laser and GEO focusing mirror development are assumed to require $2 billion. The proposed power-satellite design mass is 5 kg/kW or 5,000 tonnes per GW. (The project would still make money at 10,000 t per GW.) Development cost of $4 B seems reasonable by taking a low-tech approach and not being too concerned with mass. Four billion dollars should be enough to rough-design three (one PV and two solar dynamic cycles) and finish-design one or two power satellites. Some money will be for design of construction facilities at GEO. Other than being able to be broken down into loads that fit the transportation system, mass is even less of a factor for the "dockyard." Working capital is also not included in the model because the time between purchasing parts for a power satellite and selling the new power satellite is under 90 days. The construction facility at GEO to build 1 GW power satellites is assumed in the model to be equal to the first power satellite mass (5000 tonnes). One GW is not optimal for power satellites. As the increasing flow of materials makes larger-size power satellites practical, the model enlarges the construction facilities by 5000 tonnes per GW. There is no provision in the financial model for robot assembly or teleoperators. The model assumes up to 1000 workers at GEO operating highly productive machines such as roll formers (one or two roll formers will make beams as fast as needed). Food and oxygen supply for the workers is not included because it is no more than 1 part in 240 (ten tons per day out of 2400). Wages for the workers in space is not included either because wages (at $500,000 per worker per year) would be one part in 365. (A GW turned out every two days and the net income after parts purchase is a billion dollars per GW.) There are no sales costs in the model on the assumption that at $1600/kW ($1.6 B/GW) all that is needed is a person to take orders. Skylon cargo per flight initially (with small laser power) is taken from Figure 16. Starting at very near orbital speed of 7.5 km/sec and using a 10 MW, laser the payload

delivered to GEO is 14.9 t. The laser accelerates the stage at 0.1 m/sec 2 (1% of a g). Low acceleration makes efficient use of reaction mass. The laser would be accelerating several stages as they come into view. Multiple kicks at perigee should be as efficient as a Hohmann transfer orbit.
17000 16500 16000 15500 15000 14500

FIGURE 16. Laser stage mass kg vs. delta V.

In the Pro Forma financial statement, flights to orbit (sub-orbital as 2 GW of lasers come on line) increase by three additional flights per day per quarter, corresponding to an initial manufacturing rate of one to two Skylons per month. The lasers switch from slow boost from LEO to suborbital fast boost when the available laser power reaches 2 GW. Payload to GEO per Skylon flight then climbs from 14.9 t to 32 t as the laser power grows from two to eight GW (reached 14 years after start)
350,000 300,000 250,000 200,000 150,000 100,000 50,000 0 0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16

FIGURE 17. Payload (tonnes) per quarter.

In the model, payload to GEO exceeds one million tons 55 quarters (14 years) after the start of this SBSP project. Skylon's ability to put a substantial laser stage in LEO (or close enough for a small laser to have time to raise the orbit) means that a single 10 MW laser built for $100 million (after development) can raise almost 15 tonnes of infrastructure or power satellite parts from LEO to GEO in 11 hours.




$0 0 -$50,000 2 4 6 8 10 12 14


FIGURE 18. Cumulative profit and loss in millions.

Maximum financing is 34 quarters (8.5 years) after startup. The model is missing major items (space port, fuel plant, laser cooling) that could add 5-10 billion dollars. For all the work the author put into this paper, he is not attached to the particular details. The plan has not been optimized and the cost of the Skylons may be less because their acquisition prices reflected R&D cost that is already in the model. First point is that there is at least one way to reduce the cost of parts delivery to GEO far enough that even at two cents per kWh power satellites can be built and sold at enormous profit. The other point is that the maximum investment looks to be less than the $100 B spent on the International Space Station (assuming the author has not made major errors in the physics or financial models). Beyond the scope of this paper is the exploitation of lunar or asteroidal materials. Given this much economic activity in space, and the relatively low cost of this transportation system it seems very likely they would be exploited. For example, solar dynamic power satellites can use rock dust in gas as a heat transfer fluid. Preliminary examination of a lunar elevator through L1 offers the possibility of obtaining regolith at a cost of a dollar per kg. Regolith dust with nickel from asteroids could reduce the cost of power into the one-cent range. That is low enough to displace oil with synthetics and low enough to put synthetic oil back in old oil fields as a method to sequester carbon (it takes 300 TW years to take 100 ppm of CO2 out of the air as synthetic oil).

Appreciation for the inputs of Jordin Kare, Hubert Davis, Spike Jones, Howard Davidson, Ron Clark, Russell Brand, Hugh Daniel, Stewart Eves and Michael Swartwout.

1. See slide 33. 2. One alternative to bringing power satellite parts from the earth is to build them with materials from the moon or asteroids. This is the classic approach of Dr. O'Neill. Mostly due to transportation, the cost of establishing industry in space is excessive, over a trillion dollars, and takes two decades or more (personal communication, Dr. Peter Schubert, Packer Engineering.) 3. Harry G. Stine quoted by Col. Peter Garretson. aid=198 4.

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