Edward M. Lerner discusses Energized, his newly released near-future, alternate-energy thriller.
Question: Energized has a very striking cover – but what is that thing in the foreground? Besides, apparently, big.
Answer: It is big: a square two miles on a side. And although it’s wafer thin, it masses three times as much as the International Space Station.
As for what: a solar power satellite. In a few words, it’s an orbiting power plant.
Q: And in a few more words?
A: Let’s start with the solar part. We all know that sunlight is free, and that solar cells turn sunlight into electrical power. Solar farms are, if not common, no longer the rarity that they were a few years ago. What’s not to like?
A lot, it turns out. Solar cells don’t produce power at night, or in the rain, or covered in snow. Nor is sporadic output a solar cell’s only drawback. The “fuel” to solar farms is diffuse, because the atmosphere scatters sunlight (as in: why the sky is blue). A solar farm must be huge to produce as much power as, say, a coal-fired plant of equal capacity. The rain- and snow-free areas where solar cells work best (saylike, southwestern deserts in the US) aren’t where people live and consume power. Widespread use of solar farms (or, for that matter, wind farms) must entail vast upgrades to the national electrical grid.
But that’s solar farms on the ground. A solar power satellite – an orbiting array of solar cells – captures unscattered sunlight 24/7. It beams that power, converted to microwaves, wherever it’s needed. The same SPS that heats Boston in the winter can cool Atlanta in the summer. Or, a few years hence, that SPS might recharge electric cars in places where the local power infrastructure has lagged behind the surge in demand.
Q: Sounds neat. Why don’t we have any SPS?
A: Launch costs. A one-gigawatt SPS (and the US uses terawatts of power) might weigh a couple million pounds, and – alas – it can cost more than a thousand dollars to put one pound into orbit. But in Energized (not a spoiler: this emerges in the prologue), NASA has captured an Earth-threatening space rock.
Imagine a trillion tons of supplies and building materials already in orbit…
Q: I know a segue when I hear one. You’ve called Energized an alternate-energy thriller. I get the alternate-energy part: SPS. What about the thriller?
A: Consider some recent energy problems: an oil-well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Chaos, revolutions, and oil-supply disruptions across the Middle East. Meltdowns of Japanese nuclear power reactors. Four-buck-a-gallon gas. Together they can’t match the Crudetastrophe, the (as yet fictional) petro-crisis that sets the story into motion. The crisis from which a fleet of SPS might provide relief –
If the countries that control the remaining oil, more precious than ever, don’t get their way. They’ll do anything to keep Powersat One from succeeding – and Our Hero will do anything to stop them. Or he’ll die trying.
Q: Disruptions to the world’s energy supply. That sounds eerily familiar. Coincidence?
A: Not at all. Too much of our energy comes from unstable, even hostile, regions and regimes. Too much energy infrastructure – refineries and power plants, pipelines and electrical distribution – is old and rickety. It’s in a novelist’s nature to extrapolate worrisome trends. In Energized, I hope to point the way to solutions.
Q: Thanks, Ed. I enjoyed talking with you.
A: It’s been my pleasure.
Energized by Edward M. Lerner was released by Tor on July 17th. Learn more about Ed and his work at the Edward M. Lerner, Perpetrator of Science Fiction and Technothrillers website and at his blog, SF and Nonsense.
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