THIS COUNTRY has always had a fascination for great technological undertakings. In earlier times it was the frontier approach: explore further, dig deeper, build bigger. Lately it has become the "technological fix," a search for the "big" solution that will rescue us at least temporarily from the reality of dwindling natural resources.
Nowhere has this so deeply affected national policy as in the country's frantic contortions to avoid the one inescapable truth of the energy crisis: at least for the foreseeable future (what the policy papers call the short- and the mid-term), this country has to rely on energy conservation. There are no combinations of new supplies that can reduce oil imports so long as energy waste is so profligate. Though President Nixon regularly fired his energy czars for believing it, even the first post-embargo study, chaired by gung-ho pro-nuclear Dixy Lee Ray in 1973, concluded that energy conservation was the country's top energy priority.
The first hoped-for was the Alaska Pipeline. Its two million barrels a day make hardly a dent in today's consumption; and now, to justify the cost, the Interior Department is searching for a way to keep it filled (the pipe will freeze and buckle without hot oil in it) when Prudhoe Bay runs dry a few years hence. Fix-it fever broke out again last summer when the president and Congress -- desperate to do something about energy -- hit upon synthetic fuels. This time, reality set in pretty quickly and the proposed initial spending dropped from $88 billion to a few billion in a few months. But now, the House of Reparesentatives has voted to speed up a project that makes these look like child's play.
This new solution would lie in space, and is known as SPS -- the solar power satellite. It would be a system of 60 satellites, each one 55 square miles in size (an area the size of Manhattan) in orbit around the earth. The satellites, covered with solar cells, would beam the sun's energy back to earth as microvaves that would be picked up by antennas, each requiring a 29-square-mile site. Among other modest needs, the program would require a new rocket five times more powerful than the Saturn V that carried Project Apollo, and space shuttles to carry dozens of technicians into the high orbit where the huge satellites would be assemble. Space launch buffs would be happy since SPS would require 500 rocket lift-offs a year for 30 years. Fully developed in 2030, SPS would deliver an amount of energy about to current national electricity consumption -- 10 percnet or less of the total energy need. The cost? Somewhere between $700 billion and $1 trillion.
SPS is still only a concept, though at the House's level of $25 million per year, an expensive one. Even ignoring the program's technical demands -- rockets, shuttles, satellites, etc. -- and the massive cost, there are myriad problems. What are the health effects of microwave radiation? How would terrestrial communications systems be affected? Could the land required for antennas pick up the same amount of energy if covered with solar cells for a fraction of the cost? What about the vulnerability of the satellites to anti-satellite warfare? And on and on. All these are being studied not once but three times -- by the Department of Energy, independently by the Office of Technology Assessment, and in a critique of DOE's study by the National Academy of Sciences.
Thinking about solar satellites now, for use around the year 2000, reflects a distorted view of reality. Our auto companies can't yet produce a 50-mpg car. Our houses leak as much as two-thirds of their heat. Our utility system forces industry to waste steam and encourages wasteful use with declining unit prices. We have hardly begun to explore the opportunities for energy production through more efficient technologies for energy use. Let's walk before we fly.