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5.12.3 Environmental Effects of SPSs on Earth

The SPS - rectenna system would be clean, because there is no fuel consumed, and the energy is transported by power lines.

In the section comparing SPSs to other energy sources, which emphasized the relative economics of the SPS - rectenna concept compared to its economic competitors, there was also much discussion on the way that the SPS - rectenna concept would benefit the environment. This section adds to that discussion.

Currently, the most economical large scale electricity source is coal fired power plants. However, we must deal with the effects of mining coal (e.g., drainage into our water), combustion gases (acid rain, greenhouse effect, smog particles), and disposal of burned coal and smokestack sludge. Toxins and carcinogens are often found in the environment in dangerous levels as a result, including benzene, arsenic, mercury, lead, beryllium and cadmium. Discharges of acids, dissolved solids and suspended solids can degrade drinking water supplies, contaminate waterways, lower crop productivity from pumped ground water or irrigation as well as smog fallout from the air, affect recreational lakes and streams, and make the fish we eat poisonous.

In the Adirondack Mountains, about 200 lakes are fishless as a result of acid rain due to fossil fuel combustion many hundreds of miles/kilometers away. (Schemer, ref. 49) Even in strict Sweden, about 20,000 of 100,000 once-thriving lakes have become fishless due to winds from other countries bringing smog which falls with the rain. (Nat'l Geographic, ref. 51) Germany's great Black Forest is sick and dying due to acid rain, which prompted German legislation to attempt to reduce acid rain production within their country by stricter environmental standards, though it is not feasible to make major reductions (Pearce, ref. 59). John Roberts, as Canada's Minister of the Environment, in noting the dying forests and lakes, asserted "Your country, the United States, is dumping its garbage at the expense of our country." (ref. 51) His coordinator for acid rain research, Dr. Hans Martin: "We calculate that half of the acid deposition striking Canada is imported from the U.S." These are just a few examples.

People in many cities have been affected by overdoses of copper and lead poisoning as acid rain corrodes copper pipes and lead solder joints. Babies and the elderly are most affected.

Crops are affected by acid rain. A major concern is the effect on the rice paddy fields of China and Southeast Asia which feed so many people.

Also affected are stone buildings. The list of those hard hit is long, but include the Acropolis in Athens, Roman ruins, European Gothic architecture, and the Taj Mahal south of New Delhi.

Over the decades, the acidity level (pH, or potential of hydrogen) has been measured and correlates with the death of species. The increasing acidification of U.S. rain since the first large scale databases were implemented in the mid-1950s is dramatic, typically increasing in acidity by a factor of 100 or more.

Acid rain is caused by sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, both of which are invisible. The figure below shows the contributions of each in the USA. Note that fossil fuel power plants put out 79% of sulfur oxide emissions and 50.7% of nitrogen oxide emissions. Transportation (internal combustion engines) produce 43% of nitrogen oxides but little sulfur.

Nitrogen oxide emission trends

Yet, coal fired power plants continue to be the power source of choice by both the most advanced and the poorest countries in the world, because they're the most economical. In the less developed countries, long-term environmental preservation is seen as a luxury that can't be afforded now.

What must be offered is less expensive clean electricity.

The sooner we embark on a SPS program, the better for Earth economies and the environment. The SPS produces:

  • no waste matter,
  • no acid rain,
  • no carbon dioxide (CO2) or other greenhouse gases.

Let's make Earth into a museum of the Universe's unique life, not destroy it for extra near-term dollars.

Some people have expressed concern that the SPS beam and rectenna will heat up Earth since we are "importing" energy. The truth is the opposite. The beam and rectenna won't heat up Earth and in fact lead to a cooler Earth, for two reasons. First, when we burn oil or coal, we are "importing" heat to the environment by releasing heat stored in a chemical form. The SPS would produce less waste heat on Earth than other electricity generation techniques because the rectenna would be more than 80% efficient (20% waste heat and reflection), versus 30% for thermal power plants (70% waste heat) like coal and nuclear. Basically, when you burn fossil and nuclear fuels, you create heat. Conversion of this heat to electricity is typically 30% efficient from coal and nuclear sources, and getting more than that isn't feasible by the laws of thermodynamics. (The satellite is only about 20% efficient in converting sunlight to electricity, but the waste heat is in space, not on Earth's surface.) Earth power plants usually cause thermal pollution only locally, e.g., warming up lakes which they use for cooling. Notably, the SPS beam for the reference concept has a maximum intensity only 20% that of sunlight at its center.

Secondly, and far more significantly, since the SPS replaces fossil fuel consumption, it will reduce carbon dioxide emissions which are responsible for global warming.

The single greatest forms of environmental destruction to nature are the population explosion in equatorial regions and efforts to raise standards of living without much regard to the environment. History has shown that countries' economic development has resulted in lower population growth rates. Often, the reason is the reduced need to rely on one's children for labor, and for support in old age. The more children, the higher standard of living. That's Third World `social security'. (Other times it's religion, and communications and modernization often relieve a culture of its ancient roots in the need for many children.)

Even in the least developed countries, the environment would benefit greatly if we bring in electricity from SPS for cooking. This relieves families of the need for labor in collecting firewood miles away -- a major reason for deforestation and nomad migration. It also reduces the practice of burning the dung of laboring animals instead of using it to refertilize the soil, which in turn will reduce soil depletion and migrations. Electric powered water pumps for wells and irrigation will reduce labor needs for carrying water for miles and will also help prevent newly deforested areas from soon becoming dustbowls (with a resultant migration again). Sustainable agriculture can greatly reduce nomadic destruction. Electric threshing of stalks (versus manual labor), and communications and education can help lay the foundations for slower population growth. Electric powered consumer products certainly relieve one of the need for offspring labor. 20th century communications creates many opportunities. Alternative lifestyles to those that destroy nature can become available, as can awareness of the world and their role in it. Once a society modernizes in key ways, offspring switch from becoming a source of economic production to a burden for economic mobility.

The reduction in need of imported oil will reduce drainage of foreign exchange (i.e., dollars) and allow this money to go to local modernisation, and will also help the oil-poor less developed countries to finance their debts. SPS electricity promises to be cheaper than oil (as well as more reliable in the long run from price shocks, supplies and economic repercussions), and infrastructure spending is less for electricity -- simple electric power lines, not pipelines, train tracks, tankers, and deep sea ports.

The greenhouse effect -- carbon dioxide (CO2)

In the long run, the greenhouse effect could possibly wreak the most havoc on humanity. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of all fossil fuel combustion, and causes the atmosphere to retain more of the sun's heat. Melting of the polar ice caps and glaciers will eventually lead to flooding of coastal cities and ports. Earth warming could cause wind pattern shifts and hence climate shifts, turning some food-producing lands into deserts and shifting rains to lands without much topsoil or flat area.

Fossil fuels are the result of dead plant and animal deposits over hundreds of millions of years. The burning of the world's fossil fuels mostly over the span of the 20th and 21st century, an instant in geologic time, is releasing the carbon stored by hundreds of millions of years of accumulation, which means that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be significantly higher, and average temperatures warmer, than any time in recorded human history. This is a man-made, technological phenomenon.

Right now, about 92% of the developed countries' energy comes from fossil fuels, and the less developed countries are growing up into newly industrialized countries and following suit.

One possible result of the greenhouse effect is the sudden collapse of The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), pictured below. Just 18,000 years old, it is not based on bedrock and persists only due to buttressing and bonding to surrounding ice. Importantly, this segment of the ice cap is not insulated from climatic warming by a sea ice cover, unlike other shelves. Computer modelling and observations imply a very high probability of instability. Geologic data suggests that it may have collapsed once before 120,000 years ago, causing a sudden 7 meter high (22 feet) sea level rise which left worldwide depositional land terraces. (DoE, ref. 70) Currently rising Earth temperatures threaten to cause its release again, with a 5 to 6 meter (15 to 20 feet) sudden flooding of the world's coastal cities. In fact, some think the Amundsen Sea Sector is already showing the first signs of an impending collapse. (DoE, ref. 73, pp.5,12-13)

Antarctic ice sheets

Check out the partial list of large cities which would be affected most, in the table below.


Meters above sea level

Venice, Italy


New Orleans, USA


Amsterdam, Netherlands


Leningrad, Russia


Baka, Russia


Fukuoka, Japan


Lagos, Nigeria


Tel Aviv, Israel


Seattle, USA


Utrecht, Netherlands


Veracruz, Mexico


Valencia, Spain


Much of suburban U.S. states
CT, MA, LA, FL, others


Much of the world's agriculture


Rotterdam, Netherland


Tokyo, Japan


Alexandria, Egypt


Yalta, Russia


Shanghai, China


Antwerp, Belgium


Copenhagen, Denmark


Your city or property


Similarly, just 8,000 years ago, the central dome of the Hudson Bay ice sheet collapsed, with a resultant surge in sea level. Siberian driftwood reached high places on distant Ellesmere Island in this period.

Antarctica is the fifth largest continent on Earth, and is covered with ice, totalling around 90% of the world's glacial ice.

Approximately 15,000 years ago, the oceans were about 130 meters (400 feet) lower than they are at present. This gives us an idea of how much the ocean levels can change in a short time. The current sea levels were reached 5,000 years ago. The oceans were about 6 meters (20 feet) higher approximately 120,000 years ago.

While the structural vulnerability of the relatively new (in geologic time) WAIS was revealed around 20 years ago, it was not until recently that data on melting trends over a large scale was observed. Radar images were taken by satellite from 1992 to 1996 and revealed significant glacial shrinking, as reported in the professional journal Science in 1998. The analysis of the data suggested that the cause of the shrinkage was warmer ocean waters which were melting the bottom, which could lead to the collapse mechanism. The leader of the study, Eric Rignot, a radar scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said "It is important because it could lead to a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet ... We are seeing a glacier melt in the heart of Antarctica." As glaciologist Craig Lingle of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks put it: "There is no other example of anything in West Antarctica that is retreating that fast. This is the farthest south this phenomena has been observed." "The continuing retreat of Pine Island glacier could be a symptom of the WAIS disintegration." (Quotes come from Reuters reporter Michael Kahn in a headline story on July 24, 1998.)

The Earth had been going through a slow cooling off period over the past several thousand years, but that trend has reversed sharply over the past few decades.

If you own property with an elevation of less than 5 meters (15 feet) above sea level, you'd better be prepared to sustain 100% loss of value (as well as perhaps 100% loss of home and property). Certainly don't retire dependent upon it. If you're thinking of buying such "greenhouse-vulnerable property", think again. Financial institutions, be prepared.

In reality, a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would mean a collapse in the world economy.

Remember the Asia recession in 1997-98. It showed how a seemingly small part of one economy can bring down the rest of the country's economy and then domino to bring down other economies. It shows our fragile system of capitalism.

The Asia recession started when some large real estate development loans in Asia performed poorly -- they built too many expensive new highrise buildings and too few companies and people rented them. It was the fastest growing part of the world at the time, with real estate magnates and institutions traditionally getting very rich, but out of greedy speculation they built too many expensive buildings too quickly. I was in Asia specifically consulting to engineering and construction contractors who designed and built many of those buildings. The time came that some very large companies could not pay their bills because they did not have enough tenants in their real estate portfolios (and those who were renting were getting low rates due to oversupply). The day came when the big companies could not pay their bills. They could not pay their contractors and suppliers for goods and services already supplied. Those contractors in turn found themselves with very large bad debts, and many of those businesses failed as a result. Worst of all, financial lending institutions and banks failed because too many of the companies they had lent money to had failed along with their large suppliers and contractors. I had clients and associates go under, and some never paid me for work or equipment supplied (though my business survived). The effects spread through the entire economy. It was amazing how a problem with such a small part of the economy quickly spread to giving others problems, who in turn gave others problems...

The effects of sea levels rising would be global, not limited to Asia or some other locality. Further, for each country with a coast, think of the Asian real estate losses and multiply them by ten thousand -- loss of ALL real estate in ALL the world's low lying coastal cities. Consider loss of all marine shipping ports for commerce. Remember the oil shortages in the 1970s, adding up to only a few percent of supply but causing price problems? Consider loss of all coastal oil refineries, in addition to all shipping ports. Imagine that, all over the world. I don't think we're looking at the effects of just some large financial institutions failing in a few Asian countries and a collection of businesses. No, we're more likely to be looking at the vast majority of financial institutions failing, a whole lot of businesses failing, skyrocketing energy prices, and gross devaluation of our savings. Comfortable retirement? That gets blown away. You'll have to work, whatever you can do in that vastly different kind of economy and world.

We would also be looking at massive migrations, homeless people and starvation. The changes in coastlines and ocean currents will mean changes in weather patterns and climatological changes to food growing areas, so the problems will not go away after a few years.

This will not be a nice world to retire in, or to do today's kind of business in. We are all in this boat together. So go educate your politicians. Also tell your business leaders that you aren't interested in greenhouse-vulnerable real estate and businesses, and clearly suggest they also convey their greater concerns to their government lobbyists.

The effects of carbon dioxide on the world will eventually make today's defense spending look trivial and powerless, and the cost of SPS development small compared to its value of preventing such destruction. It's a national security issue.

Finally, global warming can cause climate shifts even if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet does not collapse. Disappearance of other sea ice can affect ocean currents, which in turn affects wind currents and climates, turning some food-producing lands into deserts and shifting rains to lands without much topsoil or flats. High latitudes (above 65 degrees) are more affected by the greenhouse effect, and "warming would be 2-3 times as great over the polar regions as over the tropics". (Valentino/DoE, ref. 76, pp.590-593)and (Valentino/DoE, ref. 71, pp.I-4 through I-6)

As Darel Preble reports (Copyright 1997 by Darel Preble):

" of the more visible projections of climate change is an increase in the severity and frequency of hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms, floods, and other costly weather Of the 24 largest weather related catastrophes in history, 21 happened in the last decade. Hurricane Andrew, for example, bankrupted eight insurance companies in 1992, costing the industry over $17 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute. To date, fifty European and Asian insurers and dozens of banks have signed accords with the U.N. pledging to consider the issues of climate change and other environmental problems in all business practices. "Climate change poses a real threat to our business." says Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Assn. In their full page ad, Swiss Reinsurance Co. argued that reducing the risk of calamities from global warming was a better policy than merely raising rates or refusing to insure some risks."

Recall, a "Little Ice Age" occurred between the 13th and 18th centuries AD in Europe and elsewhere, ending nearly as suddenly as it started. Records in Denmark and England for example state that the winds shifted to the northeast instead of the west and southwest during this period. We can expect the same kinds of climate shifts in our future.

As C.P. Snow states in Two Cultures:

"The only weapon we have to oppose the bad effects of technology is technology itself. There is no other. We can't retreat into a nontechnological Eden which never existed... It is only by the rational use of technology -- to control and guide what technology is doing --that we can keep any hopes of a social life more desirable than our own; or in face of a social life which is not appauling to imagine." (Cited by Frederick A. Koomanoff, U.S. Dept. of Energy, in the Summary document of the SPS Program Review.)

Miscellaneous concerns

Many people ask about the effects on the ozone layer of SPSs. Answer: none. The SPS in no way affects the ozone layer.

Rocket launches do cause various forms of pollution comparable overall to a power plant on the ground, but ozone depletion would be negligible. (Valentino/DoE, ref. 88) Using materials already in space, i.e., asteroidal and lunar materials, will greatly reduce launch needs.

Others asked about whether a SPS could crash to Earth. No. Unlike low Earth orbit space stations and spy satellites, the SPSs are located in a very high Earth orbit, and it would take many thousands of years before the SPS's orbit could possibly decay to cause atmospheric entry.

Notably, large scale space development using asteroid-derived fuel propellants will insure that dead satellites in low orbit do not crash to Earth, even old satellites launched before today. Several have crashed to Earth already. Most old satellites are still under our control and are controlled to splash down in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, but more and more satellites are failing in orbit and falling to Earth out of control. With space development, we can stop uncontrolled falling to Earth, and indeed all satellite falls.

SPS is clearly the logical next step in energy supply for advancing civilizations in our universe who wish to support economic progress while preserving their planet. > Products and Services > Solar Power Satellites (PowerSats) > Environmental Issues > Non-Beam Issues

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