Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Small and the Many

The title for this post was borrowed from the article in one of the recent issues of The Economist.  The timing of the article about satellites was fitting in few days before the anniversary of the first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4. But the concept discussed in it is also relevant to a number of other areas including energy and energy policies.
The concept is using a large number of small satellites instead of one or few large ones. The reasons for doing it this way are many. The article gives an example of two companies, both in business of making satellites, both not too surprisingly located in California. One called Space Systems Loral (SSL) from Palo Alto, currently owned by MacDonald Dettwiller (MDA), a Canadian aerospace company, is a veteran of the industry. It manufactures communication satellites intended to transmit radio and television signals over the high-altitude orbit. The first satellites (and most scientific spacecraft still, such as Hubble telescope or Juno interplanetary probe) were one of a kind, large and expensive. The SSL designed 1300 series platform based on modular architecture. Each satellite uses the same structure: a cylinder 1.2 meters across enclosed in a square box.

The more more the satellite has to do, the taller the box it is built on, the longer its solar PV panels and the larger and more complex the array of antennae and reflectors through which it sends data to its earthbound clients. Few days ago SSL has delivered one of the biggest, Sky Muster II, designed to provide broadband communications to remote areas of Australia. It stands nine meters tall, with a complex array of reflectors attached to it. Despite the modular design, intended to bring the cost down, these satellites are very expensive. The smallest of them may sell for $100 million, while the biggest can approach half a billion. Add on another $100M for the launch, and the satellite may not start showing a profit for a decade.
There is another consideration. The industry which is supposed to be innovative, must be very risk-averse. Because of the need for a long lifetime in a hostile environment and already a high sticker price, a new advanced technology will not be flown.
The example of a totally different company and a different approach is Planet Labs from San Francisco. While the SSL's clean room for the satellite assembly could be compared in size with a cathedral, the Planet's assembly is of the size of Starbucks. The satellites it manufactures are 30-cm long and weigh about 5 kg. Their design is based on the so called "1U" standard. Making one of them utilizing many of the smartphone components takes about a week. "This is the new face of space: small objects, large numbers".
What makes this approach extremely attractive is several reasons. One is pretty obvious - cost. Small satellites are much-much cheaper than the large ones (an additional advantage, they do not require a dedicated launcher but are flown - often in batches - as a secondary payload utilizing the room left after a primary payload). Second, as noted above it does not take much time to make them which is a very important consideration in a highly competitive market. Now, because of the large number of the satellites, they are not indispensable - the reliability of the service they provide does not depend on any one of them. Related to that, because of the short time, low cost and relatively high frequency of the launches, the company can afford consistent improvement of their products!

Let's look at another area, energy generation and transmission. Be it electricity used for lighting and numerous other needs, or some fuel such as natural gas, delivered to homes and businesses for heating, energy structure is based on large facilities such as power plants, oil refineries etc. These facilities are expensive, take long time to build and often have a large environmental impact - such as area flooded by the hydro power plants. They are also vulnerable to all sorts of risks - from technical glitches to natural disasters and targeted attacks (more often recently, cyber-attacks which are easier to perform than physical attacks). The examples of such events are well known, from Chernobyl to Fukushima, and from BP oil spill in Mexico Gulf to disruption in Ukrainian energy network. These risks may lead not only to significant costs to restore the operation of the large facility but typically affect a large number of end-users. Also, because energy has to be delivered from generation facility to end-users, additional expenses, more environmental impact and more risks are involved. Large number of users can cut off the energy by a disruption in transmission lines or pipelines.         
By analogy, an alternative "the small and the many" approach can be successfully applied to the energy infrastructure. Instead of large centralized power plants, small-scale integrated on-site energy generation offers numerous advantages. Yes, I am talking of course about solar and other clean energy technologies. Firstly, energy conservation/efficiency measures should be implemented. Then solar thermal or geoexchange system can provide entire heating, cooling and hot water needs. Then the remaining electrical load for lighting, electronic equipment etc. can be addressed by a small solar photo-voltaic array and/or small wind turbine (where appropriate) with an on-site energy storage.    
Such a system would be much cheaper (per installation), quicker to implement, less expensive to maintain and repair, plus have smaller to none environmental impact comparing to large centralized energy generation. This would also eliminate the need for expensive and unreliable means of energy transmission. Such distributed energy generation will be much more reliable as a whole because the problem in one location will not affect anyone else. Every system can be attended and serviced and even its generation optimized on an individual basis. Finally, every subsequent deployment can be improved based on the performance monitoring of the previous installations and due to the constant technology evolution. 

So, should we continue building gigantic power plants, refineries and pipelines or move to an agile and intelligent distributed energy network? The choice is ours.


1 comment:

  1. You may be qualified for a new government solar rebate program.
    Find out if you're qualified now!