How Using Web3 Incentives Could Fund Solar and Space-Based Renewables
W e need to take a fresh and innovative approach to the climate crisis by looking at a solution beyond our planet. To reverse global warming, we need first to fix our energy production.
Web3, space tech, and climate solutions are three areas that stand to develop exponentially in the near future. I believe they share common ground that has not yet been explored and can be combined to form mutually beneficial and sustainable solutions to what is arguably our planet’s biggest problem — the burning of fossil fuels for energy production.
When you can get clean, inexpensive, tokenized, and fully traceable energy all of the time, why would you need something as dirty, challenging, and expensive as fossil fuels?
We desperately need to find solutions that will redirect the course of the climate crisis towards a more positive future. New tools are evolving around blockchain technology which open pathways for collaboration and innovation towards a novel approach to this complex and overwhelming issue.
The Tokenization of Energy
National blockchain projects like WePower in Estonia, and organisations such as Power Ledger and Energy Web, have been researching and developing systems to tokenise energy. They aim to bring antiquated energy systems, built for the last century, into a new era. I want to see a world where all the energy we buy is fully traceable to its origin, with data about greenhouse gas emissions from every step of production and subsequent transmissions embedded on chain, with pricing determined transparently, fairly, and consistently.
Do you currently have a say in your energy supply? At home, at work, on public transport? If you are in a part of the world where you can sign up for a clean energy tariff to supply your home, are you able to verify first-hand that the energy is produced by clean sources? Or do you have to take the company’s word for it?
Imagine a future where all the energy supplied to you is sold as a token, and because it’s on a blockchain there’s no ambiguity about trust.
If the data about emissions associated with that energy exceeds a certain threshold, a smart contract will determine not to transact with that energy provider and instead buy from a supplier who is doing a better job for the climate. Collecting this data automatically and using it on chain will offer a tremendous advantage to ethical suppliers and consumers because it will become impossible to sell energy obtained from dubious sources.
Challenges for Renewables
The problem we have today is that even if we could tokenize all of our energy systems right now, our current-generation renewable sources cannot readily and consistently supply energy. The problem will only grow as the global population continues to increase.
‘Base-load’ power is the minimum amount of electricity needed to keep everything constantly running, outside peak times of energy consumption. Our global base-load power is currently generated by the constant burning of fossil fuels. Current renewable energy technologies are at the mercy of the weather and only produce energy when the conditions are right. Even if scaled up massively, they cannot replace our base-load power requirements without large-scale storage attached, something that is not yet feasible with our current battery technology. A new solution is needed, one which requires no major scientific breakthroughs to realise, offers significantly increased efficiency, and can be embraced relatively quickly.
A Possible Contender
Space-based Solar Power, or SBSP, sounds crazy on the face of it. Solar farms in space — unhindered by the atmosphere or by the shadow of night, able to transmit clean, always-on energy down to any part of the Earth. This technology works to harness our most abundant energy source: the sun. In theory, this would work much more efficiently than any ground-based renewables we have today.
Is that really so crazy? The UK government doesn’t think so. They commissioned a report into the feasibility of SBSP in 2021, and assisted in forming the Space Power Initiative to pursue it further.
The UK press recently caught wind of this with a flurry of articles appearing in the national press. Alas, if the journalists aimed to promote serious public discourse around an initiative that can at first seem to be pure Sci-Fi, was it wise to cover this particular story just before April Fools’ Day?
The cynicism in the comments sections of these articles was understandable.
“Stop wasting our money on yet more implausible boondoggle dreams.”
“We can’t even build ones on the ground on budget or on time. Let’s refine that process first.”
“If today was April 1st this story would be too ridiculous to fool anyone.”
All technology that becomes commonplace starts as a ‘crazy’ idea in someone’s mind and begins life as something that most people can see no utility for. You can count both blockchain and SBSP in that category. Blockchain enthusiasts have begun to explore the early iterations of what could be possible with technology, and an ever-growing number of people are becoming attuned to the value proposition of blockchain in general. With something as new and ambitious as SBSP, the general public will be hard to persuade at first, no matter where in the world they are. Over the course of a four-year election cycle, anything that isn’t going to win votes is in danger of being defunded or mothballed.
Governments are simply not very good vehicles for enacting and seeing through big, bold, new ideas spanning decades. An example is the chaotic and controversial High Speed 2 rail project in the UK, where the estimated cost has ballooned to “between £72–98 billion (2019 prices), compared to an original budget of £55.7 billion in 2015 (2015 prices)”. Perhaps it could be argued that building in space may actually be easier than delivering a large infrastructure project on the ground.
The UK government is supporting SBSP to find a way of fumbling towards their 2050 net-zero target; currently they are not even on track to meet their previous goal of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While their aims are worthy of support, the current government will be long gone by the time any meaningful progress takes place. Will the next administration be considerate to the policies of their predecessors, or will the slate be wiped clean?
In terms of a solution to the global climate crisis, the UK initiative seeks to address the clean energy requirements of a fraction of the population of a country that makes up 0.87% of the global population. In other words, it will barely move the needle.
Greenhouse gases don’t care for our borders, so to look at the problem from this perspective is unhelpful. We need to think bigger, beyond political election cycles. We need to adopt a more open and forward-thinking mindset — zoom out and look at what’s possible but hasn’t been done before.
Image: SPS-Alpha Concept by John C. Mankins
SBSP offers greatly improved efficiency over terrestrial renewables. Systems such as CASSIOPeiA and SPS-Alpha developed by Ian Cash and John C. Mankins respectively, are designed to be capable of self-assembly and self-repair in space. These are not current-generation satellites. Instead, they are next-generation, modular systems assembled autonomously in orbit. They are designed to form large arrays, several kilometres across, which collect sunlight, convert it to microwave radiation and transmit it to Earth. They can supply base-load power anywhere, any time, unaffected by the weather or time. This is large-scale, always-on, renewable energy, which allows us to do away with the need for mass battery storage. Such sources would be needed to balance out the intermittent nature of renewables.
I have recently been in conversation with John C Mankins, a physicist at NASA for 25 years and one of the world’s leading Space-Solar experts, about his potential involvement with StarOne DAO to develop decentralised SBSP. It’s fair to say that common concerns that immediately spring to mind have been taken into account over the decades of work developing SBSP. For example, a common concern I hear is about the possibility of such a system being weaponized into a death-ray a-la James Bond or Star Wars. The reality is that the power transmitted to Earth is only about a quarter the strength of regular direct sunlight on your skin; it would be pretty useless as a weapon.
The biggest problem in developing SBSP is overcoming the inertia, both metaphorical and physical, needed to get it off the ground (pun intended). Much work is yet to be done, but the realisation of a functioning system is much closer than you might think. We have recently entered the age of space tourism, which will inevitably lead to more human space travel, spearheaded by those billionaires we all love to hate or hate to love for one reason or another — Musk, Bezos, and Branson. This age will see the cost of sending stuff to space aboard reusable rockets falling … just like an old, single-use rocket. It’s not just those big three either, other smaller companies like Rocket Lab are also thriving in a marketplace that was forecast by Morgan Stanley to grow to $1 trillion by 2040. I would bet money on seeing space-based organisations with market caps measured in the trillions in my lifetime. The blockchain sector had been worth well over $1 trillion until the current bear market set in, ahead of a predicted recession. It’s easy to see how the major players in blockchain stand to benefit as the technology matures and finds ever more useful applications.
For space solar to be possible, we need low launch costs in order to start testing these new, large, autonomous systems in space. This, and the current readiness level of key components of the proposed systems, means it is feasible now, without any major breakthroughs in physics, computing, materials, or engineering.
Congratulations! You were born at the right time to see the advent of space solar power! There is of course much R&D to be done, and it will cost a lot, probably billions, to realise the first working system. From there, the nature of a modular design, comprising small self-assembling parts, will lead to mass production which will bring the costs of replicating these systems down over time.
What we need is an appropriate means by which to organise and structure our human efforts to bring this about. As we discussed, governments are not great for this purpose. We need to look beyond localised global politics and organise ourselves in a novel way.
Enter Web3: A New Perspective
The decentralised autonomous organisation is a digital-first community that uses blockchain as a basis to foster a community in order to fulfill a mission. It offers us ways to organise without overarching centralised authority, leveling the playing field to combine talent and resources more efficiently and limit opportunities for corruption by keeping immutable records of its operations on chain. It opens the way for us to offer layers of incentivisation to all participants in the system, with tokens (including non-fungible tokens) providing a community with the building blocks to run its own economy.
The combination of blockchain and space tech stands to enable incentives for humanity to save ourselves from a crisis of our own making.
Given the often self-destructive and self-defeating nature of human behaviour, incentives to work towards saving ourselves give us a much better chance of achieving the desired outcome. We cannot simply appeal to an individual’s sense of the larger picture, because that is a hard thing to visualise, and even harder to get people to agree on. We need incentives to think beyond ourselves and our immediate experience of the world to benefit our contribution to the bigger picture because such thinking does not always come naturally or easily to us. The climate crisis is a problem of our collective that needs to be tackled collectively.
Tokenisation of energy, enabled by the blockchain, gives us new avenues to explore incentivising people to work towards the long-term survival of our species and our ecosystem. With the possibilities opened by DAOs we have ways to use the immutable, decentralised, and trustless nature of blockchains to raise the human and financial capital to build and operate a global, decentralised network of space-based solar power systems. At maturity, these will be capable of supplying clean, base-load power to anywhere it is needed, all of the time. Being owned and controlled by a DAO, the system can develop to ensure that power is distributed decentrally, load-balanced autonomously, with payments, costs, revenue, and taxes all determined by writing these functions into smart contracts — fully transparent to the consumer.
When you can get clean, inexpensive, tokenized, and fully traceable energy all of the time, why would you need something as dirty, challenging, and expensive as fossil fuels? We need to get to a point where it is less of a ‘green’ and conscientious choice to use clean energy, but rather a no-brainer.
We have an opportunity to create a system where people have incentives to contribute towards fixing global warming by helping to build a new way to harness our oldest energy source. There is no map for how to get there — we are at the frontier. What I can tell you is that clean, global, ownerless, decentralised, low-cost, base-load power is possible and within our reach.
None of this is easy, but we are beyond small changes and easy solutions. If overpriced ape pictures and billionaires blasting into space on phallic rockets feels to you like Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned, I understand why. Human nature doesn’t change much through the ages, but our tools do. The new tools we have today enable us to gradually inch our imbalanced biosphere back in the right direction, the direction that fosters and nurtures life, long into the future.
Keiran CP Flynn is the co-founder StarOne DAO and wishes to thank Sahanna Suri (Co-founder StarOne DAO, Celesta Labs) and Madison Adams (Dream DAO, Gitcoin DAO).
BanklessDAO is an education and media engine dedicated to helping individuals achieve financial independence.
Disclaimer: this isn’t investment advice. This article has been written for informational and educational purposes only and it reflects my personal experience and current views, which are subject to change.
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