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GaiaSelene -- Space Opera Documentary
Jamais Cascio, 18 Jun 05

gaiaselene.jpgGaiaSelene is ostensibly a documentary. Interviews with scientists, engineers and futurists spell out in detail a plan to solve the environmental and energy problems the Earth's citizens have gotten themselves into. But the subtitle of GaiaSelene is "Saving the Earth by Colonizing the Moon," and that sums up this movie quite well. GaiaSelene explains that building a series of lunar bases would result in the ability to provide nearly-limitless energy to Earth through mining Helium-3 (an isotope of Helium much more readily usable for nuclear fusion) and by collecting solar power and beaming it to earth via microwave.

That neither of these technologies is quite ready yet is hand-waved away; speakers in the preview (streaming QuickTime) assert that we can do this today, if we just had the will. Dismissed with equal ease is any notion that there might be other solutions. For the GaiaSelene folks, this is our only choice.

I'm hardly what one might call a space skeptic, and I agree that colonizing the Moon will be pretty useful. But I take strong issue with the claims made by the documentary that renewable energy sources can't cut it, and that the only way to survive without destroying the environment is fusion and energy beamed from space. It's a significant bit of cognitive dissonance: they only look at renewable energy technologies as they are now, but want to base their agenda on fusion and microwave beam technologies that have yet to be invented. (I'll leave aside the observation that the microwave beam could be a pretty nasty weapon in the wrong hands -- the brief image in the preview of a massive spot of energy moving across Central Asia makes that point all too well.)

The documentarians also make the common mistake of trying to dismiss the utility of renewable energy by showing just how many square miles of solar panels it would take to replace total global power production. Okay, all together: nobody is claiming that all the world's energy will come from solar; a mix of sources provides reliability, counters intermittency, and allows greater distribution; and if we can boost annual average improvements in efficiency by 2% (instead of the current 1% rate), we'll be using less power by the end of the century than we do now, even with nearly twice the population and globally high standards of living.

A review in Wired provides more details, and raises more questions. Although I doubt it's the intention of the filmmakers, GaiaSelene is a reminder that one of the potentially-unexpected consequences of climate disruption will be people coming from the fringes claiming to have The Solution to global warming, peak oil and other energy & environmental problems.

I do believe that the underlying GaiaSelene argument is one worth considering. There are good reasons for wanting to expand off of a single target... er, planet, and He-3 is a terrific "fuel" for nuclear fusion, whenever we actually figure that out. But moving to the Moon is not the only solution.

GaiaSelene is available on DVD.

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Comments

Hi Jamais,

having been one of the first to see this and puchase a copy - my early review of it here:

http://www.sciscoop.com/story/2004/11/14/111834/97

I'm interested to see the followup perspectives now. Chip also showed it at the Washington ISDC meeting (of the National Space Society) last month, to an audience of a few dozen. It should be noted the current edition of the "documentary" is a preliminary version; I believe the voice-over narration is going to be replaced, and the content will probably be trimmed a bit.

But on the subject of "they only look at renewable energy technologies as they are now, but want to base their agenda on fusion and microwave beam technologies that have yet to be invented" - that's really not correct. Marty Hoffert, one of those interviewed in the video, has long been looking at real solutions to the climate problem; he was an early advocate of wind power, for instance, at New York University. All of those interviewed have a many-decade perspective on the climate and technology issues; I've talked with about half of them myself. Marty I hear will be featured in an upcoming National Geographic on the climate problem. Paul Spudis sat on the recent NASA commission. These are prominent folks, not "fringe" in any normal sense.

The important thing about the perspective is that these people realize the scope of the problem - few in the renewables community really accept the magnitude of what they need to do. The "2%" vs "1%" efficiency improvement idea is very unlikely - most importantly because invariably as we improve efficiency of energy use we have INCREASED, not decreased, total consumption (except very briefly when energy prices are high).

The scope here is that we need 10 to 20 thousand GW of carbon-free electric energy production, or 30-60 thousand GW of carbon-free thermal energy, by 2050. This is an enormous requirement.

On the area requirements - solar photovoltaics is actually the most concentrated of the renewables; anything else that could be done on a very large scale (biomass, wind, geothermal) actually requires more area covered by power generation elements. Space solar is certainly an option that would potentially have lower area requirements and environmental impact here on Earth, though it doesn't have to be from the Moon.

It's also true that people talk about tens of thousands of square miles of solar panels as if that's impossible - well, it's not, it's one of the options we have. Let's face the scale of the problem head-on and see where it takes us. Maybe to the Moon, maybe to new technologies. But hiding our heads in the sand and saying "existing technologies are good enough" is where the real problem is right now.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 18 Jun 05

I'll leave aside the observation that the microwave beam could be a pretty nasty weapon in the wrong hands -

Not to be a nitpicker but it should be possible to engineer the beaming system so it cannot be turned into a weapon.

But, good post! This is why I've got your blog in my newsfeed.


Posted by: Brian on 18 Jun 05

I wish proponents of any particular sort of alternate energy source, whether it's on earth or in space, would not proclaim it as "the only solution". To begin with, it's almost certainly not true, and furthermore, to have a big impact, it doesn't need to be. With a world commodity like energy, a few percent increase/decrease in supply can leverage huge swings in prices up/down.

With regard to lunar based solar power, Univ. of Houston physicist David Criswell, the long time proponent of the idea, has gradually convinced me that it is worth investigating. I think NASA should include a pilot project as one of its top priorities for the Moon base that it is now planning to establish. Info about Criswell's ideas are available here http://www.sciscoop.com/story/2005/3/3/202842/5764
- and in this interview - http://www.thespaceshow.com/detail.asp?q=285

(I think, though, that Dennis Wingo's proposals - http://www.thespacereview.com/article/205/1 - for extracting platinum group metals from the Moon for applications such as fuel cells, probably will have a bigger impact on the Earth's economy.)

BTW: Criswell points out that space power beams would in fact be totally useless as weapons. The power levels of some airport radar systems are already considerably stronger than what would be used for lunar power transmission. This link - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_satellite#Safety - is also relevant.

Note that simply relaying power through space could be quite useful. For example, Iceland has abundant geothermal energy that it could transmitt to industrial areas around the world via satellite relays.


Posted by: Clark Lindsey on 18 Jun 05

My god, this is crazy talk. Take the time, materials and energy we'll need to dedicate to putting a station on the moon. That's a huge up-front investment that will take years, and may not even work. A lot of things can go wrong, and even NASA is not immune to occasional deadly math slip-ups.

Meanwhile, every doubling of production for wind or solar brings down prices 10-20%. We can pretty much count on this as it has occurred for every other technology we manufactured on a large scale, and at ~30% annual growth we'll see a few more doublings before a moon base is ready.
As things are going, wind and solar will be the cheapest way to produce energy by 2020-2030. Building integrated PV makes the surface area arguments moot.

Let us take for granted that renewables will be cheaper. Conservation could still be cheapest- and even investing a fraction of what we do in fusion, nuclear and pie-in-the-sky technologies we would achieve far better ROI, sooner. Light up the World will do more good for humanity's energy crisis than NASA.


Posted by: Daniel Haran on 19 Jun 05

Oh my, here we go again. (I've been arguing against this beam-it-down-scotty microwave notion for 30 years...)

Two quick throughts, before heading off to fathers day brunch:

1. It's a bad idea.

Importing more off-planet energy to earth will further skew the planet's energy balance, adding more fuel to the climate change fire (since there'll be even more energy released into the atmosphere, that won't be able to escape to space -- the reason that any energy source that isn't solar driven (and that includes fission and fusion, as well as off-planet microwaves and He-3) is problematic.

(See "Weather or Not: Risk and the Physics of Climate Change," www.natlogic.com/resources/nbl/v05/n15.html)

2. We don't need to.

The incident solar energy flux to this planet is currently 13,000 or 17,000 times (stat from Don Aitken of Union of Concerned Scientists, sorry I forgot which one) current energy demand. The problem is not a shortage of available energy resource.

Use the flux, Luke.


Posted by: Gil Friend on 19 Jun 05

My god, this is crazy talk. Take the time, materials and energy we'll need to dedicate to putting a station on the moon. That's a huge up-front investment that will take years, and may not even work. A lot of things can go wrong, and even NASA is not immune to occasional deadly math slip-ups

Daniel, while not a cure-all, your concerns could be alleviated by a prize or tax incentives. "First United States based company to establish such a base within these parameters gets X prize money." This would work and the taxpayer would need only pay the prize. If it doesn't work, your money stays in the Treasury.

Let us take for granted that renewables will be cheaper.

We could - but I'd hate to take anything for granted. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst isn't a bad way to think about energy needs.

The problem is not a shortage of available energy resource.

Granted - we have abundant energy resources. The problem then is one of distribution. We have large areas of the world that would benefit from cheap energy, but you can't get energy to them.

How many areas depend for their power on sources that must be transmitted many miles over terrain where the locals will steal the copper from the transmission lines? How many areas would be better off if their source of supply were _not_ located in areas controlled by another faction that could 'just turn the power off'? What would happen to a place like Sao Paulo if the power were cheap, always available, and contractually obligated to be 'on'?

So, sure we have enough flux. We have a transmission problem. SPS fixes at least this problem.


Posted by: Brian on 19 Jun 05

Island-dweller or cowboy? That's the distinction here. An island-dweller must learn to live within limits and intelligently manage available resources. It's a daunting challenge, and many well-meaning people think we're not up to the task.

A cowboy can always ride toward the horizon and conquer the wilderness. He can kill all the bison for their tongues, put the Natives on reservations, and plow the prairie until it becomes a dust bowl. Then it's time to go pioneering again.

This conversation is not really about technology. It's about world view, and that's a difficult conversation to have.


Posted by: David Foley on 20 Jun 05

But David, we don't dwell on an "isolated" island - essentially all renewable sources come from outside our little planet: the Sun. The questions all boil down to - what's the most economical and ecologically soundest way to turn that energy (already coming from space) into useful things for people. Maybe it's solar on the ground, maybe it's wind. Or maybe it's one of these other options. Efficiency helps, certainly - it makes more useful stuff for people out of the same energy, which is great. But efficiency doesn't collect the energy in the first place.

Read the other posts here on ecological footprints and two conclusions immediately jump out: we need to be more efficient in what we do. And, we may need more than just this planet. Yes, we live on an island in space, but we now have technology that can take us across the ocean to other lands that may help us solve our problems. Why not at least include it in the mix of possible solutions?


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 20 Jun 05

Island-dweller or cowboy? That's the distinction here.

We'd be mighty poor indeed if we restricted ourselves to our local environment and the resources available within an arbitary unit of measure away.

With respect, David, you can expand your definition of 'island' to include the solar system. It will pay off for your descendents.

This conversation is not really about technology. It's about world view, and that's a difficult conversation to have.

I'm unsubtle and lack nuance - I may have missed the last covnersational turn. I thought the conversation was about using our smarts to help our civilization.


Posted by: Brian on 20 Jun 05



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