The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Lunar solar power base illustration
Developing lunar solar power facilities, like the early-stage version illustrated here, could provide the Earth with the energy it needs to prosper in the 21st century. (credit: D. Criswell)

Reaping powerful ideas from a luminary


Professor David Criswell is Director of the Institute for Space Systems Operations at the University of Houston.

For over 30 years, Dr. Criswell has been an advocate for lunar solar power. He has also devised many amazing planetary and solar engineering wonders such as the “Criswell structure”: a sun-encircling sphere with great canyons so that tens of trillions of Earths’ worth of people can have a balcony with sunlight (1020 people vs. about 1010 this century). Or if we prefer, vast estates that are each the surface area of a 1,000 planet Earths for every person alive today.

See also the backgrounder on Lunar solar power.

Sam Dinkin: How is lunar solar power (LSP) different from Earth solar or orbital solar power generation?

David Criswell: The Moon has no atmosphere, rain, or clouds to block sunlight as does the Earth. Doing the construction on the Moon is far less expensive than sending raw or processed materials to deep space for later use. There are fewer manufacturing operations. You do not have to build the platform.

Dinkin: What is the minimum money scale for a viable lunar solar power (LSP) project that would cost the same as Earth generated power?

Criswell: When LSP approaches 100 gigawatts electricity (GWe) of capacity and has delivered in excess of 500 GWe years (GWe-y) of energy the LSP energy will drop below the cost of electric energy from conventional systems. This will likely require the order of $400 to $500 billion.

This is a bit over one year of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) budget or about three years of global expenditures on exploration and development of oil and natural gas to maintain about 85 million barrels of oil per day production. A 20-terawatt-electricity (TWe) LSP is the equivalent of 1,000 million barrels of oil per day.

Dinkin: Does that include lobbying, regulatory, legal, fundraising, and marketing? Insurance? What does it include?

Criswell: The estimates are for engineering and operations costs and some interest to bring the demo to commercial scale.

Dinkin: When will the price of electricity start to drop if you were given the money today?

Criswell: Approximately 15 years after the start of an Apollo-priority program the cost of electricity would drop beneath $0.10/kilowatt electricity hour (kWe-h). By 2040 the cost would be a fraction of a cent per kWe-h.

Dinkin: Why wouldn’t the owners of the solar power production charge the monopoly price, i.e., just a hair less than the cost of Earth’s electricity sources?

Criswell: Following the demonstration phase more than one organization can be licensed to construct and operate lunar power bases. They can compete to sell electric energy to any rectenna on Earth or in space. They will have strong incentives to compete in the rapid installation of capacity.

Dinkin: If they formed a cartel like OPEC, how much could they make?

By 2040 the cost would be a fraction of a cent per kWe-h.

Criswell: I attend the Houston Chapter meetings of the International Association of Energy Economists. Last Thursday Professor J. Smith of SMU gave an excellent talk on recent unpublished research on the Net Present Value (NPV) of OPEC versus the averaged selling price of oil through 2050. The NPV refers to the net profit, and not the capitalization, of OPEC that is required to extract their oil and natural gas over the next 20 or 50 years. He estimated [the NPV to be] a minimum of about $2.5 trillion and maximum of $3.3 trillion.

When the LSP system delivers 20 TWe and the energy is sold at $0.01/kWe-h then the profit is approximately $1.6 trillion/year. Thus, LSP would replicate all future OPEC NPV in two to three years.

Dinkin: That is fantastic. That is a huge source of clean power beckoning. Are you saddened by all of the deaths related to pollution and wars when we could have lunar solar today if we had stayed on the Moon with a 15-person research base in the 70s?

Criswell: Of course. The daily global lost of life due to the lack of low-cost energy is the order of the deaths from the Indonesian tsunami.

Dinkin: Suppose I want to invest. Who do I apply to in order to get a license to broadcast? Land to set up shop on the Moon?

Criswell: I believe that each nation is free to set its own uses of the electromagnetic spectrum. In fact, mutual interference must be considered. Due to the extraordinarily high value of the narrow bandwidth necessary for space power, it can displace other uses, especially those that can migrate to fibers. However, there are harmonics to consider. So, this is a work in progress.

The “Outer Space Treaty” appears to set one international basis for the use of the Moon, on a non-interference basis, by parties to the treaty. That seems adequate for a start. Of course, the law will evolve.

Dinkin: Doesn’t the Outer Space Treaty prevent any ownership interest in the Moon? “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

The daily global lost of life due to the lack of low-cost energy is the order of the deaths from the Indonesian tsunami.

Criswell: As I understand the treaty, a signatory nation or its designated organizations can occupy an area on the Moon, extract resources (physical and intangible) on a non-interference basis, and use them on the Moon or send them off the Moon. When the signatory nation or its designated organizations stop using the installations and territory then they can sell the installations but cannot sell the territory. They simply leave.

This understanding was from the NASA General Council that was provided to the Lunar Energy Enterprise Task Force in 1988.


Dinkin: Are there any drawbacks to LSP? If we adopted LSP as you advocate, aren’t we putting energy security in one basket?

Criswell: What are the other options? As far as I can tell, the other options provide far less security and actually drive regional and global insecurity. Fossil power systems are certainly subject to local (Iraq) and global (CO2, ash, mercury, etc.) problems.

The sun is the ultimate necessary power source for a truly prosperous (large-scale) human society. The other power options do not, to me, appear adequate to provide 10 billion, or more people, with more than 2 kWe/person.

Thus, priority will be given to making the LSP System robust. Also, LSP is a distributed and highly redundant system. It would be very difficulty to wipe out large portions. Also, it is very hard to sneak to the Moon.

Dinkin: The Outer Space Treaty outlaws weapons on the Moon. “The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden.” Isn’t this inconsistent with defending a resource valued in trillions of dollars?

Criswell: Installations on the Moon and in orbit to secure the LSP system would directly provide security to everyone on Earth. That type of defensive operation seems appropriate and prudent.

Dinkin: Here’s a scenario: a terrorist group hijacks the regular shuttle to the Moon. They kill the operators at the Moon base, then steal local mining equipment and use it to wreck the capital equipment. Does it matter that we can see what they are doing if there is no security apparatus to stop them?

Criswell: The LSP bases are spread over tens of thousands of square kilometers and composed of hundreds of thousands of individual stand-alone power plots. The control system will also be widely distributed. It would be somewhat like taking down the Internet.

Any rational program, government or private, would provide security for the planet’s most vital economic resource.

Dinkin: DoD is testing a microwave crowd control weapon. How can the broadcaster be prevented from being weaponized?

Criswell: The control system on the Moon can be slaved to individual receivers (rectennas farms) on Earth. The distributed control system can be designed (using hardware and software) to not allow concentration of the beams above approved levels on Earth. There can be many, many off switches.

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