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Networking For A Better Future - News and perspectives you may not find in the media

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August 24, 2003

The Energy Racket

What does energy have to do with us?

Are we not able to get electricity from "the grid" and fill our vehicles' tanks with various types of hydrocarbon combustibles - all for a reasonable price?

Energy is one of the areas where a potentially desastrous monopoly is controlling what goes and what doesn't. Potentially desastrous because monopolies have the nasty habit of charging whatever the market will bear, and wiping out the competition wholesale. Contemplating our energy future under such a monopoly leads to nasty visions of having to make an economic decision whether to take a drive or turn on the washing machine. It also means that we're losing out on the positive side - what could we do with a cheap and practically unlimited supply of energy? I leave that to your imagination.

In any case, energy is not something to leave to the big players. That's a sure recipe for desaster. On the other hand, our own, personal choices and decisions will shape our energetic future.

Industry cannot possibly go against the wishes of the end user for any length of time. Competition will spring up and take the monopoly out of business. Sometimes there are "accelerating events" such as the recent Eastern US power outage. People start thinking seriously about where their energy comes from and whether there are any alternatives.

A discussion of this and other interesting food for thought can be found in the Integrity Research Institute's Future Energy eNews - latest edition - to be published August 25, 2003.

An article by Jon Rappaport of is also interesting. Rappaport comes to the conclusion that the great blackout event was intentional - not just a freak surge in the grid as government investigators seem to suggest.


AUGUST 19. I now have a number of credible reports from people within the area of the blackout. These reports indicate that car radios went out just prior to, or as, the blackout started. Also, I have reports of people in three different states---Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey---hearing sounds like thunder about the time the blackout began. One person in Ohio discovered two interesting things just after the outage descended: a digital clock in the house which had a fairly new battery suddenly displayed a series of non-numerical symbols instead of the time; and the fuse box was too hot to touch.

In light of these reports---and the failure of the mainstream press to take notice of them---we now have to inquire into the failure of many cell phones in the affected areas. This has casually been explained as a "jamming" caused by too many people making calls at once.

One witness in Toronto states that as she and many other people stood outside during the initial evening hours of the blackout, planes were heard flying overhead and the effects of chemical spraying were
felt---stinging eyes, etc.

The fact that electronic devices not connected to the power grid went down or behaved strangely points to an event that took place outside the grid and affected it.

What would that event be?

So far, no sources report significant solar flare activity, although I have a statement that an ACE satellite, which monitors solar activity, stopped relaying data shortly before the blackout. Such a satellite is obviously built to function in the face of solar flares so it can register and transmit data.

However, all in all, the most compelling explanation for the blackout is a directed and intentional electromagnetic pulse originating from outside the power grid. There is no other way to describe such a pulse than as a weapon.

We come to the official investigators' description of the ten-second happening that supposedly triggered the whole blackout. It occurred within the Lake Erie loop portion of the grid, and it involved "an
oscillation." More specifically, 300 megawatts of electricity flowing eastward suddenly turned into 500 megawatts flowing west. As a result, many parts of the system shut down, to avoid damage to equipment.

I have been seeking assessments about these ten seconds. Is it an unusual happening? Yes. Why did it take place? Was it because, as the official investigators suggest, some power generator behind the 300
megawatts suddenly failed. "creating a vacuum"---and because electricity takes the path of least resistance, those megawatts promptly turned around and filled the vacuum behind them?

Apparently, there are canceling safeguards to keep such a thing from happening. Further, a turnaround of 800 megawatts total and 180 degrees in direction is a HUGE event. One that most likely would not be explained by other than some external force applied to the grid from the outside.

A power engineer has suggested I think about these ten seconds using the analogy of a car. I am driving down the highway at a fast clip and then suddenly I'm driving the opposite way at an even faster clip.

If we infer that an electromagnetic weapon was used last Thursday, we can ask, WHO BENEFITS?

Well, there are many levels of answer. But, as I have been writing for the last several days, at one level the beneficiaries are those corporate and government leaders joined together at the hip who are re-creating the whole power industry in the atmosphere of so-called "deregulation."

Energy Secretary Abraham has awakened from his slumber long enough to put a $50 billion price tag on rebuilding the grid to make it thoroughly modern.

On its face, I find this estimate fatuous. If we really have been laboring under a "Third-World grid" all this time, we would already have had a number of nationwide blackouts.

Even the lead investigator, Mr. Gent, rejects that derisive characterization of the grid.

No, the billions of dollars are going to form a gift for power utilities and construction firms that have friends in high places. To say nothing of energy traders who deal, every day, in buying and selling energy futures.

One of those friends is George Shultz. George is a master fixer and negotiator in the political realm. He has recently been moved in to bring Arnold S up to speed on "economic issues" in the CA gubernatorial campaign.

CA, of course, has been hit very hard by corporate energy pirates, and George, as a former secretary of state and, more importantly, the head of Bechtel---a giant construction firm that specializes in power facilities---is going to move CA toward a future of more energy building and re-building projects.

Government gifts and consumer rates will fund these projects. The consumer will not be treated to lower energy bills.

The blackout was a perfect op for setting up a "money oscillation" in the direction of private corporations who want to build new energy projects.

On August 18, Bloomberg Financial News reported that, "for Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., North America's biggest power failure may validate their bet on the $13 billion-a-day energy trading market."

This trading market registered a brief upward spike in prices of 800 PERCENT following the blackout.

A commodities trader interviewed for the article predicted that, in the next 20 years, such blackouts will be the norm.

Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs can only hope.

We should realize that many of the bonds, the sale of which are currently keeping the state government of CA from declaring bankruptcy, are underwritten by Goldman. This means Goldman is guaranteeing the bonds will be sold to its customers---and so they have been.

Now, Goldman is ALSO, in various ways, underwriting the future of energy companies in CA.

Do you think Goldman perceives a connection between its underwriting the state government and the energy companies?

The success of the latter helps insure the success of the former.

There is, in all this, an immense boondoggle underway.

I have, in front of me, an as-yet unconfirmed statement that, on the day prior to the blackout, "the share trading volumes and price appreciation moves in stocks" of various companies that would see upward stock-price spikes in the event of such a blackout showed some interesting activity. That would not surprise me. It would be one more vector in the boondoggle.

Based on the evidence so far available to me, I'm making the judgement that the August 14 blackout was an intentional event.


= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Future Energy eNews

August 25, 2003

Special Blackout Edition

1) Getting By Without the Grid - TIME discusses the obvious future energy answer that everyone else is ignoring ... power parks, net metering, democratizing energy, moving our own electrons, grid for backup only ... but the horse traders may lose business.

2) Sun on Roof, Yen in Pocket - Japan now generates half of the world's solar power and has overtaken the U.S. as the leading producer of solar panels. Be the only home on your block that doesn't blackout in broad daylight.

3) Europe and America to Develop Hydrogen - Cooperative venture on paper only.

4) Reasons Not to Switch to Hydrogen - Leaks destroy ozone layer; too expensive; CO2 released in manufacture of hydrogen.

5) Renewable Portfolio Standard Analyzed by REPP - Non-profit group finds costs and benefits to be equal on a solar PV installation.

6) Space Elevators may be closer than imagined - NASA has a space transportation idea that will take 20 years before it is finished.

1) Getting By Without the Grid: Politics of Power

by David Bjerklie and Mitch Frank/New York, Rita Healy/ Denver and Laura A. Locke/ San Francisco, TIME, August 25, 2003, p. 36

Can America free itself from the grid and democratize energy?

There's nothing like a multistate summertime blackout to get environmentalists and industry groups throwing spitballs at one another. Extreme greens wag told-you-so fingers and dream anew about a grid-free country, with homeowners generating their own power courtesy of clean, renewable energy sources. Industry types speak instead about building new nuclear or conventional power plants or muscling up existing ones—and delivering all the juice through a modernized distribution system.

In this instance, both sides are right—to a degree. While centralized power will probably always be with us, the best way to upgrade the energy grid may well involve doing away with some of it, democratizing energy production by handing the job off to communities, blocks and even private homes.

Long before last week's blackout, environmentalists and industry researchers had begun evaluating the idea of "power parks"—communities or mere groups of homes that would generate their own energy courtesy of solar panels, wind turbines, fuel cells or natural-gas generators. The little clusters could be almost entirely self-sufficient, relying on the grid only in the event that they needed to top themselves off with a sip or two of outside power. Just as important, they would have the freedom to disconnect from the larger network entirely if a regional crash was threatening to knock them off-line along with the bigger consumers. Similar independent systems could be used to provide power to individual users with especially big energy appetites, such as factories or hospitals.

George Douglas, spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., concedes that the concept is "idealistic in one sense" but compares it to distributive computing, in which the data-crunching once performed by a single supercomputer is broken up and scattered among numerous smaller computers. "Almost all computing was formerly done on mainframes," he says. "Now we all have that same power on a laptop."

What has always kept this kind of energy free-lancing from becoming more than environmentalist daydreaming is that the necessary technologies have remained unreliable and prohibitively expensive (with the exception of wind turbines)—particularly if you are talking about microgenerators that serve only a single home. Lately, however, the question of cost, at least, is coming under control. "The price of solar cells has fallen," says Douglas. "Natural-gas microturbines are more affordable too. The economics are coming closer to reality."

Where economics lead, government policy often follows. The few consumers who do generate their own power—typically with green technologies like solar panels, windmills or hydroelectric turbines—usually use it only to supplement what they draw from the grid. Still, this can present a problem when the power they generate with their windmills or solar panels, combined with what they take from the local power plant, exceeds their needs. Historically, they would simply kick that extra juice back to the local power company, which would buy it back from them at far below market value. A new system has been enacted in 36 states to rectify that inequity. Under the plan, called net metering, a homeowner's electrical meter simply rolls backward whenever the house is feeding electricity to the grid instead of pulling it down, reducing the bill at the same price per kilowatt hour the power company charges.

Proponents of the policy hope that it will boost energy independence, but not everyone thinks that's a good idea. Because so much of the American gross domestic product is involved in the coal, petroleum and nuclear industries, walking away from them would set off severe economic shock waves. "The grid is a $360 billion asset," says Clark Gellings, a vice president of the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute. "It's literally a national treasure." Gellings believes that decentralization will play some role in the energy industry of the future, but he thinks it will always be a minority player. "It may be 20% of the supply in maybe the next 20 years," he says, "but it's not going to replace what we have." That may be so. But after the fiasco of last week, plenty of consumers would be happy to see the whole system replaced—or at least dramatically improved.

2) With Sun on Roof, More Yen in the Pocket

By Ken Belson July 29, 2003 New York Times

YOSHIKAWA, Japan — Yoshiko Takahashi is no environmental activist, but in the last year she has become an ardent fan of the solar panels that generate most of the electricity for her 1,100-square-foot home. Using solar power, which was included with the new house that she and her husband bought a little more than a year ago, has not only cut the family's electricity bill by 17 percent but also made her feel good about helping fight global warming.

"We feel our roof panels are contributing to a great cause," she said, her 7-year-old daughter at her side. "And it's better to use the sunshine right above your head than depend on the electric company."

Mrs. Takahashi is among 70 families who live in this compact neighborhood, the largest collection of solar-powered homes in Japan. The success of the development is part of the reason Japan has become the world's largest market for solar energy. Indeed, the builder, Hakushin, is constructing another complex, of 87 homes, nearby.

Japan is almost completely dependent on imported fuel, which makes its prices for electricity among the highest in the world. In response, the Japanese have worked for a decade to build up their renewable energy resources, and the effort is starting to pay off.

Japan now generates half the world's solar power, and the market here for solar technology is expected to grow fivefold, to about $4 billion by the end of the decade, according to the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association.

The government is also pushing to meet targets for reducing greenhouse gases, as set out in the Kyoto Protocol nearly six years ago. The Bush administration remains opposed to committing the United States to its goals, but Japan, as the host of the conference, is eager to honor its agreements.

Japanese lawmakers and officials support alternative energy as a good homegrown business that can help cut energy costs; they also see it as a potentially strong export industry.

To promote the use of solar power, the government funnels about three billion yen a year — more than $25 million at current exchange rates — to help companies develop more efficient solar technology. And since 1994, it has spent 116 billion yen ($971 million) on rebates for consumers who install photovoltaic panels on their roofs.

With the demand expanding, Japan has overtaken the United States as the world's leading producer of solar panels. By 2010, the government wants solar power generation to be sharply increased, to 4.82 million kilowatts, 40 percent more than experts expect Americans to generate by then. To reach that target, one million homes will have to be outfitted with solar panels — eight times more than now use solar power.

Reaching these goals is far from assured. The makers of solar panels face competition from generators of wind power and other clean energy sources. Though solar panels are suited for homes and small buildings, wind power generates energy for as little as 20 percent the cost of photovoltaic panels. Some Americans oppose windmills as a blot on the landscape, but Japanese seem less concerned. Wind farms increasingly dot rural districts.

Crucially, though, the government, burdened by budget deficits, is trying to phase out subsidy programs, which have typically covered one-third of the cost of panels for home use. The subsidies paid per kilowatt of installed solar-panel power have been gradually reduced and are to run out in two years.

Unless manufacturers lower their prices to make up for the lost subsidies, consumers may turn against solar energy, which requires an initial investment of about 2.25 million yen ($18,845), or 25 percent more than what Americans pay.

Some of the subsidies to be lost from Tokyo will be offset by grants from more than 200 local governments. But these programs vary widely. In Kobe, for instance, new schools and hospitals are being outfitted with solar panels so they can keep operating during an earthquake or other disaster. In other districts, few programs exist.

The government is removing another big incentive by deregulating the country's electricity market. To reduce the cost of doing business in Japan, it is allowing companies to generate their own power — a business that has been dominated for half a century by 10 regional utilities. Growing competition has forced the utilities to lower their prices, even if slowly, reducing the need for households to generate their own power.

"Japan's energy policy is now at a turning point," said Toshihiko Nakata, a professor of science and technology management at Tohoku University. "If there are no subsidies, consumers won't buy solar panels. And as the government deregulates the utilities, electricity prices will come down, so it will take longer for consumers to recoup the cost of installing the panels."

But solar energy prices are falling, too, which is expected to help the industry fight back. The cost of residential solar power systems has dropped by about 80 percent in the last decade, to around $6,000 for each kilowatt of generating capacity. Most solar homes install three kilowatts of capacity, enough to meet half their total power needs.

A big reason for the lower prices lies in cheaper inverters — which help turn solar energy into electricity — as well as other machinery. Installation costs have also dipped as the market has increased for home use of solar energy. The cost of the solar panels themselves is declining more slowly and now accounts for two-thirds of the systems' total price.

Manufacturers, Mr. Nakata and others say, have been taking advantage of the public's forbearance, cutting panel prices only as fast as the government has reduced rebates.

Part of the problem is that the manufacturers have had to compete with semiconductor makers for the silicon used to produce solar cells. Prices shot up in the technology boom of the 1990's, and solar cell manufacturers had to pay top dollar for what supplies they could get.

But since the technology bubble burst, supplies of silicon have been ample and prices have fallen. Now, the material bottleneck is the specialized glass that houses the cells; most of it must be imported.

As in many other industries, Japanese companies have worked continually to improve their technology. Sharp has developed panels that can convert 17.4 percent of the sunlight that hits them into electricity, the best in the industry so far. Sanyo, which uses different technology, says its cells can generate more electricity at higher temperatures, and require less energy to produce.

Japanese makers also produce solar cells that are less than an inch thick, making them lighter, easier to install and less obtrusive in appearance. Mrs. Takahashi's roof, built at a 30.9-degree incline to capture as much light as possible, has horizontal ridges running across it to separate the 80 solar panels, but little else to distinguish it.

The inverters and other machinery take up little space inside the house and require no maintenance. By making solar energy consumer-friendly, the companies have helped turn a niche product for the environmentally sensitive into something akin to a high-end household gadget.

The companies are also getting a boost from those consumers who are rushing to buy solar power systems before the government subsidies run out. Sharp, the leading manufacturer with 19 percent of the world market, has doubled production in the last year, and Sanyo will double its output next year with a new factory. Kyocera plans to expand production by one-third this year.

The solar cell makers are also finding allies in the depressed construction industry. With Japan's economy struggling and the population aging, starts of new homes have fallen to near 20-year lows. To revive sales, builders are cutting their prices for photovoltaic panels and roofing material as much as 25 percent.

"PV homes are selling well because a lot of people are concerned about the environment, and housewives are especially concerned about reducing their electricity bills," said Rie Abe, a saleswoman at Hakushin, the builder.

Though Japan's market is growing, manufacturers are now also starting to look overseas. Sharp has begun making cells in Memphis, and Sanyo assembles solar panels in Monterrey, Mexico. Kyocera will begin making solar modules in China in October.

Demand overseas has been spotty. Among the Europeans, Germany is promoting solar energy the most aggressively. In 2001, the European Parliament passed a law to promote renewable energy, but left each country to draw up its own targets.

Demand in the United States seems even less predictable. In 1997, President Bill Clinton introduced a program to install one million residential solar power systems by 2010. But the subsidies that are needed to compete with relatively cheap fuels are uneven. California has the most generous program; other states offer few, if any incentives.

In Japan, Hakushin is not the only home builder cashing in on solar power. Misawa Homes is building a 500-home solar town in Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido. Eight hundred or so solar homes are being built in Gunma prefecture, north of Tokyo.

These homes appeal to the feel-good environmental streak found more and more in Japan. Hakushin says that the homes in its first solar village save the equivalent of 14,500 gallons of fuel and 154 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, compared with conventional houses.

But the more immediate concern for most homeowners is saving money. Around the corner from Mrs. Takahashi's house, Hiroko Ohara happily discusses the solar effect on her household budget.

When she, her husband and son lived in a Tokyo apartment, the family paid 16,000 yen ($135) a month for electricity. Now, their bill has fallen by half and they receive about 2,000 yen from Tokyo Electric Power in return for the surplus electricity they generate. This is because most homes have no batteries to store their electricity, so any power that exceeds the family's immediate needs is routed to the electric company.

"I'm happy," Mrs. Ohara said, "when I see that it will be sunny on the weather report."

3) Europe and America, Partners (Sort of)

By MARK LANDLER,  July 27, 2003, New York Times

FRANKFURT — Europeans and Americans have clashed over issues as old as how to end the bloodshed in the Middle East and as new as whether to pursue nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at the molecular level.

So it is little surprise that they would disagree over the future of hydrogen, that most basic and ubiquitous of elements, which advocates believe will someday replace oil as the world's main energy source.

The surprise is that the United States and the European Union recently joined forces to develop hydrogen as an energy alternative that could fuel cars, buses, trucks and, down the road, virtually everything else.

"There's a genuine good-faith effort, and desire, to find common ground on how to power the future," said Spencer Abraham, the secretary of energy, who helped broker the trans-Atlantic agreement.

But have the United States and Europe — stubbornly divided on the Kyoto Protocol, genetically-modified food and other issues having to do with the environment — really found a common cause?

Don't bet on it, say critics of the agreement, both here and in the United States. A statement issued by President Bush and Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, in Washington last month was vague. The two pledged to "collaborate on accelerating the development of the hydrogen economy as part of our broadening cooperation on energy."

Such bland promises of teamwork, these critics say, paper over profound differences about what a hydrogen future will look like. Despite the Bush administration's commitment of $1.7 billion over five years for hydrogen research, many energy specialists say its goals are less ambitious and more commercially minded than Europe's. And American environmentalists say Mr. Bush has seized on hydrogen, a technology whose gains are far off, to avoid taking measures that would rein in fossil fuels now. As a result, the critics say, Europe risks having its own vision compromised.

"It's a potential hijacking," said Jeremy Rifkin, an adviser to Mr. Prodi and the author of "The Hydrogen Economy," (Tarcher, 2003) which extols the potential of hydrogen. "Europe is leading in the development of a hydrogen road map for the world. This is Bush's attempt to take the lead back from Europe. It's his answer to Kyoto."

Actually, the debate over hydrogen is more complicated than that, with sometimes contradictory political and economic interests on each side. Still, Europe and the United States approach hydrogen from fundamentally different perspectives.

Europe, a signatory to the Kyoto treaty, must sharply reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. To do that, it has set a goal of obtaining 22 percent of its electricity, and 12 percent of all its energy, from renewable sources by 2010. Hydrogen is critical to this goal, since it offers an efficient way of storing energy captured from renewable sources, like windmills or solar panels.

The United States has rejected setting benchmarks for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. But it is interested in hydrogen as a way to to wean itself off imported oil. That is why it is less focused than Europe is on renewable energy, and more interested in extracting hydrogen from coal or through the use of nuclear power.

To skeptics in Europe, the American policy looks like a backdoor way to bolster two old energy industries. "We don't trust the U.S. government," said Stephan Singer, the head of climate policy at the World Wildlife Fund in Brussels.

In the Bush administration's energy bill, which is scheduled to be debated in the Senate this week, the coal and nuclear-power industries stand to gain far more money in subsidies than would be earmarked for research on renewable energy. Europe's spending on renewable energy dwarfs that of the United States.

But this picture of a fuel-addicted Uncle Sam, so popular in Europe, misses some nuances. The American auto industry certainly seems serious about developing hydrogen-powered cars. And America is leading Europe in the development of fuel cells, which convert hydrogen into electricity.

Nor is Europe immune from those with an essentially commercial (as opposed to environmental) interest in developing the use of hydrogen. France and Spain have deeply rooted nuclear industries, influential at the European Commission. Europe has also lagged in giving incentives for the development of fuel cells.

European officials reject the accusation that they are ceding the initiative in hydrogen development to the United States. The Americans and Europeans differ only on approach, not substance, they say. Indeed, they note that Brussels has already persuaded Washington to include the commitment to renewable energy in the statement issued by Mr. Bush and Mr. Prodi.

"We can fight about Kyoto another time," said Alessandro Ovi, a senior advisor to Mr. Prodi. "There shouldn't be competition on how to get to the hydrogen age."

Mr. Abraham also denies that Americans will dictate the agenda. "We're going to work together where it makes sense to work together," he said. "Nothing in what we've agreed to requires collaboration in every area of the hydrogen economy."

The good news, perhaps, is that arcane discussions about how best to extract hydrogen or what standards to impose on it tend to cause less rancor than, say, the Middle East. "We're the problem solvers," Mr. Abraham said. "We're not fighting. That's for the foreign ministries."

4) Reasons Not to Switch to Hydrogen-Fueled Cars

by John Peterson, in FUTUREdition, August, 2003

Switching from gasoline-powered cars to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could be expensive, inefficient, and environmentally dangerous, warn two separate teams of researchers.

Hydrogen cars are being pursued because they could potentially reduce air pollution, slow down global warming, and reduce dependence on imported oil, according to Alex Farrell of the University of California at Berkeley and David Keith of Carnegie Mellon. But if the hydrogen is produced from oil and coal, carbon dioxide is released that would have to be captured and stored.

Farrell and Keith point out that technologies are already available to improve efficiency and reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases caused by automobiles that could be applied at a fraction of the cost of
switching to hydrogen.

Meanwhile, a team of Caltech researchers warns that hydrogen leaking into the atmosphere could wind up disrupting the climate and attacking the ozone layer. Hydrogen cars, production facilities, and transport systems might leak some hydrogen into the atmosphere, where it could increase moisture in the stratosphere, cool the upper atmosphere, and (indirectly) destroy ozone.

University of California, Berkeley:

California Institute of Technology:

SCIENCE magazine

5) REPP Initiates Analysis of RPS Performance

Renewable Energy Policy Project (REPP) has begun an initiative to analyze the experience of states with renewable portfolio standard (RPS) implementation. To the extent that the data is available, REPP will track and report the cost of renewables to determine whether costs have declined under RPS policies. REPP will also look at the evaluations conducted by states. As a first case, REPP analyzed a recent analysis of the Arizona RPS. The Arizona report had two significant results. First, it found that the installed cost of PV systems declined significantly. The report also conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the RPS, which found that costs were significantly greater than reported benefits. REPP found a number of questionable assumptions in the cost-benefit analysis and re-ran it. The REPP analysis showed costs and benefits to be equal.

To view the REPP analysis of the Arizona RPS, please download: this pdf file. For further information, please contact: George Sterzinger, Executive Director, Renewable Energy Policy Project, 1612 K Street, NW, Suite 202, Washington, DC 20006, 202.293.2898,

6) Space Elevators Maybe Closer To Reality Than Imagined

by Richard Perry, Space Daily, Los Angeles - Jul 22, 2003,

dreaming of cloud nine is maybe not so impossible after all

Space elevators have an image problem, mainly due to two prominent science fiction novels. They appear either ungainly impossible, or so potentially dangerous to the planet itself you would never dream of building one. With the science now indicating that they are potentially near-term transport systems, it's time to review the fiction in relation to the possible reality.

Three publications by Pearson in 1975/6/7 and work done by Moravec and published in the Journal of the Astronautical Sciences in 1977 were enough to prompt Arthur C Clarke to write "The Fountains of Paradise" and Charles Sheffield "The Web Between the Worlds" - both published in 1979.

Clarke wrote of a world developed to a point where the weather systems could be controlled to produce designer-sunsets. A lone architect designs a 40,000km elevator consisting of four tubes. With a pair each for up and down travel, and regenerative breaking used to minimize the power losses.

The first attempt to lower a wire to Earth fails when it gets entangled, and the design is changed to that of an inverted square tower. A small iron asteroid is moved into Earth orbit to act as a counterweight. The four sides of the track will feature superconducting cables backed by fusion power generators.

Ultimately, the tower stands for 1500yrs, growing to be 500m on a side with a city built at the 1500km level. Half a billion people eventually settle in orbit for a zero-g lifestyle.

In a later printing, Clarke claims his inspiration came from much earlier articles from 1966, but the resurgence of interest and writing prior to 1979 was timely. He also says that he may have been too conservative, and that the tower may be a 21st century achievement. The latest research proposes 'early' 21st century.

Red Mars

The next great opinion-forming novel was "Red Mars", by Kim Stanley Robinson in 1992. A captured asteroid is mined using nanotechnology to extend a graphite cable 37,000km down to the surface.

Elevator cars take several days to make the journey, and are thirty stories high. But the main image from this incarnation is when the cable is brought down by revolutionary action. It twists around the planet at 21,000km per hour, with horrific consequences.

"Red Mars" was part of a trilogy. In "Green Mars", a replacement cable is made using Carbon Nanotubes from another captured asteroid. Cars travel up and down the cable at the same time to minimize energy losses. It's no coincidence that both these cables are called 'Clarke'.

The "The Fountains of Paradise" elevator is used to promote the concept that many people would wish to travel to, and even live-in, low Earth orbit. In "Red Mars", the cable is the main transport system, and seen as an essential 'umbilical cord' for the new colony.

Tower of Babel

Space tethers have been discussed in international workshops annually since 1983, and by the time that "Red Mars" was written had identified the issues of material strength and production.

However, even as late as 1999, these workshops were becoming confused in their own clouds of science and fiction. The Advanced Space Infrastructure Workshop on Geostationary Orbiting Tether "Space Elevator" Concepts, held in June 1999 at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, for instance. The history section of the conference report tries to claim that the origins of space elevators could be traced back to Genesis 11.3 and references to the Tower of Babel.

They also concentrated on the non-fixed tethers, which do not go all the way to the Earth's surface and consequently require mach 16 aircraft vehicles to reach them. Even more worryingly, they considered the idea of building tall towers - up to 50km in height.

The significant point here is that as late as 1999, the materials issue had been acknowledged, but the thought processes had been allowed to dream back into 1950's style fiction. Basic desk research shows that the Tower of Babylon dates back to the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II who lived from 605-562 BC and rebuilt it to stand 295 feet high. It was nothing more then a ziggurat, honoring the god Marduk.

Clearly, the scientific thinking on space elevators had broken down and a more rational appraisal of the technology was long overdue.

Tapes and Lifters

The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) commissioned Dr Bradley C Edwards to study all aspects of the construction and operation of a space elevator, and Phase I of the report was published in late 2002.

The report very specifically addresses design and operations, which had until then escaped close scrutiny.

Firstly, the elevator would not be a cable. It starts as a 1-micron thick piece of tape 91,000km long, tapering from 5cm wide at the Earth's surface to 11.5cm wide near the middle. This tape would be taken up by shuttle together with some booster rockets. It would then be 'flown-down' to the surface whilst the booster rockets provide the required counterbalance beyond geosynchronous orbit.

Centripetal force throws the higher part of the tape away from the Earth, whilst the effect of gravity on the lower mass of the tape keeps it in tension. This first link is capable of supporting 1238kg before breaking.

That's enough to allow more 'lifters' to add additional tapes to increase the strength of the elevator to a useful amount. This takes a total of 207 lifters and nearly two and a half years to complete. In its final form, each new lifter is capable of carrying 13,000kg and then adding their own mass to that of the counterweight when their job is done.

Production Issues

Carbon NanoTubes are proposed to be the main material for the tape. These were first produced in 1991 (the year before "Red Mars" was published), with 3cm ropes being produced by 1998. The strength of these laboratory-produced NanoTubes confirmed people's predictions that this material would have the strength that a space elevator would require.

Moving asteroids around the solar system is not a requirement for a space elevator, you can 'build' the counterweight using your own construction equipment. By flying the tape all the way down to the ground you do not need tall towers and fast aircraft to connect to your orbital transport system.

A main concern is how to produce 91,000km long tapes, when the present capability is only a few centimeters. The tapes they have defined in this study are Carbon NanoTube/expoxy composites. Standard composites use these in a 60/40 ration, but this design proposes only a 98/2 ratio to minimize the mass of epoxy required - the rest would be bare Nanotubes, required to be at least a centimeter in length. This reduces the design issues to the high-volume production of NanoTubes and how to operate the elevator itself.


The study highlights most of the risks that can be identified. Meteor strikes, hurricanes, terrorist attack, even to the falling of the ribbon itself.

In "Red Mars", the falling cable causes destruction, but with this design all you get is thousands of miles of carbon-based tape fluttering to the ground at the speed of a sheet of newspaper. Hurricanes are avoided by careful selection of the ground site, which also addresses the lighting strike risk.

A damaged cable ribbon is intended to be capable of in-situ repair, whereas a broken one only causes inconvenience until a replacement length can be flown down. If lifters become detached from the ribbon then parachutes or re-entry vehicle solutions are required.

Power Systems

For powering the elevator, Clarke had to bring in nuclear fusion and superconductors. This NIAC study proposes that power requirements for the initial deployment of the tape would be minimal and met by solar arrays or batteries. The deployment itself would actually generate excess power.

The report mentions the very problems that affected the Clarke cable - those of a tangled cable as it is deployed at the rate of 200km per hour, and identifies the need for appropriate mechanical control of the tension.

The lifters that climb the tape to add new strands are powered by beaming power onto their solar panels. With this and additional power coming from the locomotive system beyond geosynchronous orbit, getting rid of excess power is actually more of an issue. This technology is under development by several companies.

So no exotic power systems are required for the construction or operation of the cable, and much of the technologies required either already exist or are being worked on as near-term objectives. Such a system is highly scaleable. Once in place, a space elevator can be used to build another, thereby increasing capacity in a predictable manner.

One of the aspects of the elevator in "Red Mars" is that it had to oscillate to avoid hitting the moon Phobos. This design identifies a similar need to avoid low Earth orbit satellites and space debris. The solution is to ensure that there is adequate warning to move the elevator, and using a sea-based anchor station to do this.

Real World Numbers

Taking the design process to the ultimate stage, that of time and cost, reveals some real-world numbers. The first cable would cost around $40billion (50% of that being contingency), whilst a second cable would cost only $14billion. The construction time for the first elevator is scheduled to take 10 years, with another ten elevators built in the following decade.

However, there have been lots of changes since the report was written. A current program is $7-10B, with a 15-year cycle to build. That assumes 2 years of research into the material sciences, with some additional testing and research on other aspects. After 3 years of design and engineering, the actual "cutting metal" and building of parts for the system will begin. That will take another 7 years, and then 3 years for launching, on orbit assembly, and final integration.

They take the opportunity to propose how to make use of this space asset, with a large space station capable of housing hundreds of people, and the construction of a Martian elevator on Earth. It would be lifted into Earth orbit and then thrown onward to Mars itself to allow for unmanned and later manned exploration. No great detail, simply a possible roadmap for the use to which tethers can be put for the next fifty years.

The space elevator has been a concept ahead of its time for too long and the implications of mass access to Earth orbit and beyond need to be considered. The remaining work of the report's writers is to further refine their studies, whilst existing commercial industry works on the production related issues.

In terms of funding, an elevator is not outside the realms of commercial business, although the business case for it needs to be confirmed. At present, this may be simply put - whoever owns the first space elevator will control economic access to space for a long time to come.

Already the commercial development of space elevators has begun. LiftPort is a new group of companies that has sprung into being as a direct result of this study. The rest as they say, is future.

Richard Perry is a director of Transorbital Inc Member of the Moon Society and the National Space Society

Related Links

Liftport (commercial elevators)
Highliftsystems (elevator research)

Forwarded as a courtesy from: 
* Tesla Energy Science Conference, Nov. 8-9, 2003 *


posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Sunday August 24 2003
updated on Friday December 17 2010

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