Marine life threatened by dropping oxygen levels in Earth’s waters, conservation group says

The IUCN said around 700 sites had been identified globally with low oxygen levels.

Image result for THE LOSS OF oxygen from the ocean due to climate change risks “dire effects” on sea life, fisheries and coastal communities, a global conservation body has said. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said that around 700 sites had been identified globally with low oxygen levels – up from only 45 in the 1960s. In the same period, the group warned, the volume of anoxic waters – areas totally devoid of oxygen — have quadrupled. The ocean absorbs around a quarter of all fossil fuel emissions, but as global energy demand continues to grow there are fears that the world’s seas will eventually reach saturation point. Oceans are expected on current trends to lose 3% to 4% of their oxygen globally by 2100. However, most of that loss is predicted to be in the upper 1,000 metres, that is the richest part of the ocean for biodiversity. “With this report, the scale of damage climate change is wreaking upon the ocean comes into stark focus,” said IUCN’s acting director Grethel Aguilar. “As the warming ocean loses oxygen, the delicate balance of marine life is thrown into disarray.” The largest peer-reviewed study to date on ocean oxygen loss concluded that deoxygenation is already altering the balance of marine life to the detriment of species that need more of the life-giving gas. Species such as tuna, marlin and sharks – many of which are already endangered – are particularly sensitive to low oxygen levels due to their large size and energy demands. But loss of oxygen is affecting species across the food chain. The biomes that support around a fifth of the world’s current fish catch are formed by ocean currents that bring oxygen-poor water in to coastlines. These areas are especially vulnerable to even tiny variations in oxygen levels. “Impacts here will ultimately ripple out and affect hundreds of millions of people,” the IUCN said. The group this year issued a landmark assessment of the world’s natural habitats, concluding starkly that human activity was threatening up to one mil

THE LOSS OF oxygen from the ocean due to climate change risks “dire effects” on sea life, fisheries and coastal communities, a global conservation body has said.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said that around 700 sites had been identified globally with low oxygen levels – up from only 45 in the 1960s.

In the same period, the group warned, the volume of anoxic waters – areas totally devoid of oxygen — have quadrupled.

The ocean absorbs around a quarter of all fossil fuel emissions, but as global energy demand continues to grow there are fears that the world’s seas will eventually reach saturation point.

Oceans are expected on current trends to lose 3% to 4% of their oxygen globally by 2100.

However, most of that loss is predicted to be in the upper 1,000 metres, that is the richest part of the ocean for biodiversity.

“With this report, the scale of damage climate change is wreaking upon the ocean comes into stark focus,” said IUCN’s acting director Grethel Aguilar.

“As the warming ocean loses oxygen, the delicate balance of marine life is thrown into disarray.”

The largest peer-reviewed study to date on ocean oxygen loss concluded that deoxygenation is already altering the balance of marine life to the detriment of species that need more of the life-giving gas.

Species such as tuna, marlin and sharks – many of which are already endangered – are particularly sensitive to low oxygen levels due to their large size and energy demands.

But loss of oxygen is affecting species across the food chain. The biomes that support around a fifth of the world’s current fish catch are formed by ocean currents that bring oxygen-poor water in to coastlines.

These areas are especially vulnerable to even tiny variations in oxygen levels.

“Impacts here will ultimately ripple out and affect hundreds of millions of people,” the IUCN said.

The group this year issued a landmark assessment of the world’s natural habitats, concluding starkly that human activity was threatening up to one million species with extinction. MORE

 

The Capitalist Threat

What kind of society do we want? “Let the free market decide!” is the often-heard response. That response, a prominent capitalist argues, undermines the very values on which open and democratic societies depend.


YANNIS BEHRAKIS / REUTERS

by George Soros

In The Philosophy of HistoryHegel discerned a disturbing historical pattern—the crack and fall of civilizations owing to a morbid intensification of their own first principles. Although I have made a fortune in the financial markets, I now fear that the untrammeled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.
The term “open society” was coined by totalitarian ideologies in his book The (1932), and given greater currency by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Popper showed that totalitarian ideologies like communism and Nazism have a common element: they claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth. Since the ultimate truth is beyond the reach of humankind, these ideologies have to resort to oppression in order to impose their vision on society. Popper juxtaposed with these totalitarian ideologies another view of society, which recognizes that nobody has a monopoly on the truth; different people have different views and different interests, and there is a need for institutions that allow them to live together in peace. These institutions protect the rights of citizens and ensure freedom of choice and freedom of speech. Popper called this form of social organization the “open society.” Totalitarian ideologies were its enemies.

 

Written during the Second World War, The Open Society and Its Enemies explained what the Western democracies stood for and fought for. The explanation was highly abstract and philosophical, and the term “open society” never gained wide recognition. Nevertheless, Popper’s analysis was penetrating, and when I read it as a student in the late 1940s, having experienced at first hand both Nazi and Communist rule in Hungary, it struck me with the force of revelation.

I was driven to delve deeper into Karl Popper’s philosophy, and to ask, Why does nobody have access to the ultimate truth? The answer became clear: We live in the same universe that we are trying to understand, and our perceptions can influence the events in which we participate. If our thoughts belonged to one universe and their subject matter to another, the truth might be within our grasp: we could formulate statements corresponding to the facts, and the facts would serve as reliable criteria for deciding whether the statements were true. MORE

Greta Thunberg says school strikes have achieved nothing

Activist says 4% greenhouse gas emissions rise since 2015 shows action is insufficient


 Greta Thunberg holds a news conference in Madrid where the COP25 climate summit is being held. Photograph: Sergio Pérez/Reuters

The global wave of school strikes for the climate over the past year has “achieved nothing” because greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, Greta Thunberg has told activists at UN climate talks in Madrid.

Thousands of young people were expected to gather at the UN climate conference and in the streets of the Spanish capital on Friday to protest against the lack of progress in tackling the climate emergency, as officials from more than 190 countries wrangled over the niceties of wording in documents related to the Paris accord.

In the four years since the landmark agreement was signed, greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 4% and the talks this year are not expected to produce new commitments on carbon from the world’s biggest emitters.

Thunberg, whose solo protest in Sweden in 2017 has since snowballed into a global movement, spoke at a press conference before a march through the centre of Madrid. She said that although schoolchildren had been striking around the world, this “has not translated into action” from governments.

South American indigenous people attend a protest in Madrid, Spain, over the climate
 South American indigenous people attend a protest in Madrid demanding action against climate change. Photograph: Rodrigo Jimenez/EPA Pinterest

 

“I’m just an activist and we need more activists,” she said. “Some people are afraid to change – they try so desperately to silence us.”

“I sincerely hope COP25 will reach something concrete and increase awareness among people, and that world leaders and people in power grasp the urgency of the climate crisis, because right now it does not seem that they are,” she said.

Although young people would keep striking, Thunberg said, they wanted to stop – if governments made credible promises and showed a willingness to act.

“We can’t go on like this; it is not sustainable that children skip school and we don’t want to continue – we would love some action from the people in power. People are suffering and dying today. We can’t wait any longer,” she said.

The march was scheduled to coincide with protests and youth climate strikes around the world. In the US, Bernie Sanders and Jane Fonda were among the politicians and celebrities planning to join in.

 Inside the mission to create an army of Greta Thunbergs – video

As well as the march and a sit-down protest in the conference centre, there were shows of international solidarity among young people from around the world, including a picnic in a central Madrid park. The conference centre was flooded with hundreds of schoolchildren accompanied by their parents, many with babies in prams, who were kept separate from the rooms where negotiators were working on a draft text to clarify aspects of the Paris agreement.

Young people voiced their frustration at protests inside and outside the conference centre on the outskirts of Madrid.

Brianna Fruean from Samoa, speaking for the Pacific Climate Warriors, told the conference: “World leaders need to know that people like me are watching them. The text we put down today on paper at COP is what our future will look like.”

Many of the young people joining the conference from developing nations around the world bore personal witness to suffering they had experienced or seen.

“I’ve had typhoid. I’ve had malaria. My grandmother died from cholera. I know what I’m talking about,” said Jimmy Fénelon, the national coordinator of the Caribbean Youth Environmental Network in Haiti. “We need to raise awareness among young people. We can get them to work together and send a strong message.”

Renae Baptiste, also from CYEN, said: “For us, climate change is no longer a concept or theory, it’s our new reality. It’s affecting our lives now.”

The activist Miguel van der Velden said: “These things are not games. They’re getting worse. They’re affecting millions of people around the world. I come here because I have hope that we can work together.” SOURCE

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Ignoring all those inconvenient traditional and unceded Indigenous rights: Neil Macdonald

Despite gushing declarations of support for Indigenous people, government defies order to compensate


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters as Marc Miller, now the Minister of Indigenous Services, looks on during a Liberal Party fundraising event in June. The government has been attempting to avoid paying compensation to Indigenous people who were mistreated by Canada’s child welfare system. (Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press)

I often wonder, when I hear some important speaker rattle off the rote land acknowledgements that have become the standard introduction for official events in this country, whether Indigenous people are getting sick of being constantly and dolefully reminded of who owns their land now.

Each Canadian university and college has its own bespoke acknowledgment. At McGill University in Montreal, for example, the speaker dutifully begins by acknowledging “that the land on which we gather is the traditional and unceded territory of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk), a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange among nations.”

The acknowledgements are like little obligatory prayers: audience members try to look reflective and sombre for a moment, then snap back to the business at hand. I doubt most people even remember the name of the luckless First Nation just named in the recitation. It’s a form of national virtue-signaling, to use an overused term.

Certainly no university president, at least to my knowledge, has ever stood up and said “this land is unceded, meaning it’s not ours, so we’re going to give some of it back.”

It seems to be the modern Canadian approach to Indigenous people: rather than deny their problems or accuse them of creating them through their own laziness, which was how my parents’ generation dealt with the question, we now smother them with humid apologies and abnegation, but not actual compensation.

Take the Trudeau government’s response to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s finding that chronic underfunding and the Kafkaesque regulations of child welfare agencies disrupted and shattered thousands of Indigenous families over a decade beginning in 2006. The tribunal ordered the Crown to compensate every affected child and family to the tune of $40,000.


The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that thousands of Indigenous people who weren’t properly cared for under the child welfare system over a decade beginning in 2006 must be paid compensation. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Evidence submitted to the tribunal was pretty clear. Unlike the system that operates in most of Canada, the network serving Indigenous communities was not at all concerned with preventing the suffering of children, only dealing with it after the fact, and brutally.

Federal regulations provided funding only once the child was removed from the home and placed in foster care, often off-reserve and away from kin. One witness called it breaking up the family to save the child. It was atrocious.

The tribunal characterized it as “willful and reckless” disregard for the children involved.

“Discrimination was proven,” ruled the tribunal in September. “Justice includes meaningful remedies. Surely Canada understands this.”

The tribunal ordered the federal government and Indigenous parties to immediately begin identifying victims – Indigenous groups reckon there are as many as 56,000 – and pay them.

True to modern form, the government’s response was wholehearted agreement, coupled with inaction and obstruction.

WATCH:Behind Ottawa’s fight to delay compensation for First Nations children  Justice Canada lawyers are set to argue against compensating First Nations children impacted by the on-reserve child welfare system. A human rights tribunal ordered the payout in September, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caused a stir when he announced plans to block it. 2:15

Then-Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan declared the system broken, and vowed to fix it: “We want to ensure that first and foremost, we continue to place the best interests of the child at the forefront.”

“Continue”? Really?

The government then sent lawyers to federal court with orders to quash the human rights tribunal’s decision, and immediately put an end to talks about identifying and compensating victims.

“Canada is committed to remedying the injustices of the past,” declared Justice Department lawyer Robert Frater, in trying to have the ruling overturned. The government argued that the compensation order, if allowed to stand, would do irreparable damage to Canada’s justice system (not to mention the fact that it would cost billions).

WATCH: Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller on why his government is challenging a human rights tribunal order that the federal government compensate First Nations children affected by the on-reserve welfare system. 8:26

Marc Miller, O’Regan’s hapless-sounding replacement at Indigenous Services, was asked on CTV in late November why the government wouldn’t just abide by the order, compensate the victims, and move on.

His answer, coming from a minister in a government that was trying to kill the human rights tribunal’s ruling, would have impressed George Orwell.

“What we are dealing with are the product of systemic discrimination that has occurred over decades,” he began.

“These court cases are a product of government inaction. And the costs are the costs of compensation to a group of people that are due compensation, but we need to take a close and careful look at how systemic discrimination gets compensated .… How do we take a look at the form and manner of compensation, which includes and should include individual compensation and systemic remedies?”

The human rights tribunal had answered that question, of course, but never mind.

A few days later, a federal judge ruled against the government and ordered all parties to proceed with talks to identify victims.

The government’s response?

Miller spokesman Kevin Deagle stepped up.

“Nothing changes our strong belief that we must compensate First Nations children harmed by past government policies,” he said in an email to reporters. “We will continue to seek a solution that will provide comprehensive, fair and equitable compensation for First Nations children in care.”

That the federal government’s own human rights tribunal had ordered just such a solution went unmentioned in Deagle’s response.

So where does this all stand?

Indigenous groups, having won two major rulings in three years on the matter, are still waiting for the government to come to the table.

The human rights tribunal has extended until January its deadline for the formation of a process to identify and compensate Indigenous children and families. It made clear that it was doing so under duress: “The panel feels cornered [by the government] and does not appreciate it,” wrote the tribunal lawyers overseeing the case.

Federal bureaucrats, meanwhile, are seeking a judicial review of the tribunal’s decisions, and are thinking the best way to deal with the matter might be to encourage a class-action civil lawsuit.

In a courtroom situated on the traditional and unceded land of Indigenous peoples, no doubt. SOURCE

 

Ottawa accepts Alberta’s new $30-per-tonne carbon plan for large emitters in 2020

Made-in-Alberta’ plan will apply to industry; federal carbon tax — and rebates — will apply to consumers


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government has accepted a carbon-pricing plan for large-emitting industries developed by the government of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press, Kyle Bakx/CBC, Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press)

The federal government will accept the Alberta government’s latest plan to tax the greenhouse gas emissions of large industrial facilities at a rate of $30 per tonne in 2020.

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said Friday his department agrees that Alberta’s system will meet federal requirements for large emitters like oilsands operations, natural gas producers, chemical manufacturers and fertilizer plants.

All told, the province estimates these types of heavy-emitting facilities account for 55 to 60 per cent of Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This system runs in parallel to the federal fuel charge — commonly known as the carbon tax — that applies to individual consumers and smaller-emitting companies.

Alberta already has a carbon-pricing system that charges large emitters at a rate of $30 per tonne. It was brought in by the previous NDP government. The new United Conservative Party government plans to modify that system, however, starting on Jan. 1.

While the carbon price will remain at $30 per tonne, that price only effectively applies to emissions above a target level.

Change in emissions targets

The new plan, known as the Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) regulation, will make it easier for some of the most carbon-intensive facilities to hit their emissions targets, thereby avoiding the tax and potentially earning credits for coming in below target.

That’s because the current targets are set at an industry-wide level — meaning all oilsands facilities, for example, are held to the same emissions standard — while TIER will create individual targets for each facility based on its emissions levels from the recent past.

The province estimates that switching to the new system will save industry more than $330 million in avoided compliance costs in 2020.

The change in targets will apply to all industrial categories except electricity generation.

Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon said Friday he was pleased by Ottawa’s decision to accept the “made-in-Alberta” carbon-pricing system.

“When we engaged with industry on TIER in summer 2019, we heard loud and clear that they want to be regulated by the province, not by Ottawa,” Nixon said in a release.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) issued a statement that also praised the “made-in-Alberta” plan.

“This program has the components to ensure both Alberta’s large and small oil and natural gas operations remain competitive, while clearly satisfying the requirements set by the federal government,” said Terry Abel, CAPP’s executive vice-president of operations and climate.

Alberta will ‘oppose’ $40 price in 2021

Current federal rules will require the price on carbon to rise to $40 per tonne in 2021 and $50 per tonne in 2022.

Premier Jason Kenney said Friday his government would “oppose that measure” but won’t necessarily flout it.

“We’ll have to make a prudent judgment when we get closer to that date,” Kenney told reporters. “Because one thing we don’t want is the federal government bigfooting into Alberta and enforcing their own, separate regulatory regime.”

The federal government plans to impose its carbon tax on the consumer-level sale of fossil fuels starting in 2020.

Carbon tax — and rebates — coming Jan. 1

Under its previous NDP goverment, Alberta had a consumer-level carbon tax that met federal requirements, but Kenney’s UCP government killed that carbon tax as one of its first acts after being elected in April.

The federal “backstop” on carbon pricing, however, means Ottawa’s carbon tax will apply to the purchase of fuels like gasoline, natural gas and propane in Alberta as of Jan 1.

Albertans will also start receiving carbon-tax rebates in the new year, which the federal government says will offset the increased cost for most households in the province.

Those rebates will be calculated as follows:

  • $444 for a single adult or the first adult in a couple.
  • $222 for the second adult in a couple. Single parents will receive this amount for their first child.
  • $111 for each child in the family (starting with the second child for single parents).

The rebate amounts are fixed. You get the same amount regardless of how much carbon tax you pay.

Economists say this helps alleviate the burden of the tax while also maintaining the incentive to consume less fossil fuel, since the less you burn, the less you pay.

That will also be applied at a rate of $30 per tonne in 2020, which works out to 6.63 cents per litre of gasoline.

 

First Nations need billions in funding to take over child welfare services, says AFN regional chief

First Nations chiefs also expected to discuss calling for Cannabis Act amendment at AFN meeting in Ottawa


Assembly of First Nations Manitoba regional Chief Kevin Hart says First Nations need funding to help them take over responsibility for child welfare services as required under a new law that comes into effect Jan. 1, 2020. (CBC News)

irst Nations would need about $3.5 billion in funding over five years to effectively take over responsibility for child welfare services as they will be able to do under a new law that comes into force on Jan. 1, says Manitoba’s Assembly of First Nations (AFN) regional chief.

Bill C-92, or An Act Respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis Children, Youth and Families, passed earlier this year, carves out jurisdiction for Indigenous groups to take over their own child welfare systems and prioritizes placing Indigenous children taken into care with their own families and Indigenous communities.

The law did not come with statutory funding, and First Nations leaders worry that without the financial resources to accompany the implementation of the new law, it will fail.

First Nations need about $3.5 billion over five years from Ottawa to help with the jurisdictional transition — covering all the complexities of taking over a child-welfare agency, such as legal issues and co-ordinating with provincial agencies — according to AFN Manitoba regional chief Kevin Hart

Depending on the type of existing funding arrangements in each jurisdiction, some First Nations could end up in debt “right out of the gate” when they take over child welfare services, Hart said.
AFN regional chief says First Nations need billions for child welfare

WATCH: Manitoba regional chief Kevin Hart says taking over welfare services for indigenous children will require about $3.5 billion over five years 

“That is something we find unacceptable and unfair when we are taking over the sovereignty and jurisdiction of our children, and it needs to be properly and adequately resourced,” he said.

Special chiefs assembly

First Nations chiefs are in Ottawa this week meeting at the Westin Hotel for the annual AFN special chiefs assembly. The chiefs will be debating and voting on resolutions setting out the priorities for National Chief Perry Bellegarde as the Trudeau government begins a new session of Parliament, with a speech from the throne Thursday.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is scheduled to speak and take questions from chiefs on Tuesday, the first day of the assembly, along with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, Justice Minister David Lametti and Heritage Minister Steven Guilbault are scheduled to speak to the chiefs on Wednesday.

First Nations child welfare is top of mind for those attending the meeting.

Many chiefs are still concerned over the federal government’s decision to challenge the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal order for compensation to First Nations children apprehended through the on-reserve child welfare system and in Yukon.

The tribunal ordered $40,000 in compensation to First Nations children and some parents and grandparents impacted by the on-reserve child welfare system.

The government has been arguing that the tribunal decision is so flawed in law that it has no choice but to challenge it.

“The issue … is that the tribunal has issued a sweeping decision that will significantly impact ISC and Crown-Indigenous relations and that raises important questions of public policy that only cabinet can decide,” Sony Perron, the associate deputy minister of Indigenous Services Canada (ISC), said in an affidavit filed with the Federal Court.

“I am pretty disheartened, but I am hoping Canada gets it right sooner rather than later because our kids are falling through the cracks as we speak,” said Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand of the government’s decision to fight the order.

The Federal Court on Friday rejected the federal government’s request for a stay on the tribunal’s order.

Arcand said he’s also concerned over the lack of funding accompanying the implementation of Bill C-92.

“I think funding is mandatory. I believe funding is the essential piece to rebuilding our communities that have been broken for many generations,” said Arcand.

“What good is passing a bill if there is no funding attached to it? Our people keep falling through the cracks and it’s unacceptable.”


‘Funding is mandatory’ in order to effectively implement the law, says Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand, pictured at a federal election town hall in Saskatoon in September. (CBC)

One of the resolutions chiefs will be debating calls on the federal government to provide transitional funding for Bill C-92.

The proposed resolution calls on the federal government “to immediately support and fund a First Nations-led distinction based transition and implementation planning process of all stages … in all regions.”

Miller’s office sent a statement saying money under Bill C-92 would be tailored to what individual First Nations need.

“We cannot presume how partners will want to exercise their jurisdiction,” said the statement.

“We will work with those partners to identify needs and ensure funding that supports their jurisdiction over child and family services.”

Cannabis jurisdiction to be discussed

Chiefs will also be debating a resolution calling on the federal government to amend several laws, including the Cannabis Act, the Excise Tax Act and the Criminal Code, to allow First Nations jurisdiction over cannabis.

“We want to keep applying pressure to make the changes required to include First Nations in the cannabis industry,” said Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod, one of the authors of the resolution.

“For far too long we’ve been excluded.”

Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod co-authored a resolution calling for an amendment to federal laws, including the Cannabis Act, so First Nations can take jurisdiction over cannabis on their territories. (Erik White/CBC)

McLeod, whose First Nation is about 30 km west of North Bay, Ont., said First Nations should not be required to strike deals with provincial or territorial governments in order to benefit from the cannabis economy.

Under the Cannabis Act, regulatory authority is split between the federal government, provinces and territories.

“We are nations that are living within another nation … we need to deal on a nation-to-nation relationship, and if the authority is delegated to a lesser government … that is not nation-to-nation,” said McLeod.

“We have inherent rights to create laws and manage our own affairs within our lands.”


Mohawk Council of Kanesatake Grand Ghief Serge Simon said the Canadian government left band governments to deal with the fallout of legalizing cannabis. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon, whose Mohawk community is about 60 km west of Montreal, said there are 24 unlicensed cannabis shops operating on the territory, and there’s little he can do to control them right now.

Simon said the federal government went ahead with its cannabis law with little regard over how it would unfold in First Nations, and now, band governments are left to deal with the consequences.

“We do have the jurisdiction. It’s just the government, like with many other things, pretty much ignores how it’s going to affect First Nations,” he said.

The special chiefs assembly takes place Dec. 3-5 in Ottawa. SOURCE

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Ottawa failed to work with First Nations to prepare for new child welfare law, says AFN national chief

How to Get Solar Power on a Rainy Day? Beam It From Space

A decades-old idea is finally getting a chance to shine—that is, a chance to send sunshine harvested by a satellite down to Earth.

the SPS Alpha device as seen from space with earth in the background
SPS-ALPHA concept and illustration COURTESY OF JOHN C. MANKINS OF MANKINS SPACE TECHNOLOGY, INC.

Earlier this year, a small group of spectators gathered in David Taylor Model Basin, the Navy’s cavernous indoor wave pool in Maryland, to watch something they couldn’t see. At each end of the facility there was a 13-foot pole with a small cube perched on top. A powerful infrared laser beam shot out of one of the cubes, striking an array of photovoltaic cells inside the opposite cube. To the naked eye, however, it looked like a whole lot of nothing. The only evidence that anything was happening came from a small coffee maker nearby, which was churning out “laser lattes” using only the power generated by the system.

The laser setup managed to transmit 400 watts of power—enough for several small household appliances—through hundreds of meters of air without moving any mass. The Naval Research Lab, which ran the project, hopes to use the system to send power to drones during flight. But NRL electronics engineer Paul Jaffe has his sights set on an even more ambitious problem: beaming solar power to Earth from space. For decades the idea had been reserved for The Future, but a series of technological breakthroughs and a massive new government research program suggest that faraway day may have finally arrived.

Since the idea for space solar power first cropped up in Isaac Asimov’s science fiction in the early 1940s, scientists and engineers have floated dozens of proposals to bring the concept to life, including inflatable solar arrays and robotic self-assembly. But the basic idea is always the same: A giant satellite in orbit harvests energy from the sun and converts it to microwaves or lasers for transmission to Earth, where it is converted into electricity. The sun never sets in space, so a space solar power system could supply renewable power to anywhere on the planet, day or night, rain or shine.
Like fusion energy, space-based solar power seemed doomed to become a technology that was always 30 years away. Technical problems kept cropping up, cost estimates remained stratospheric, and as solar cells became cheaper and more efficient, the case for space-based solar seemed to be shrinking.

That didn’t stop government research agencies from trying. In 1975, after partnering with the Department of Energy on a series of space solar power feasibility studies, NASA beamed 30 kilowatts of power over a mile using a giant microwave dish. Beamed energy is a crucial aspect of space solar power, but this test remains the most powerful demonstration of the technology to date. “The fact that it’s been almost 45 years since NASA’s demonstration, and it remains the high-water mark, speaks for itself,” Jaffe says. “Space solar wasn’t a national imperative, and so a lot of this technology didn’t meaningfully progress.”

John Mankins, a former physicist at NASA and director of Solar Space Technologies, witnessed how government bureaucracy killed space solar power development firsthand. In the late 1990s, Mankins authored a report for NASA that concluded it was again time to take space solar power seriously and led a project to do design studies on a satellite system. Despite some promising results, the agency ended up abandoning it.

In 2005, Mankins left NASA to work as a consultant, but he couldn’t shake the idea of space solar power. He did some modest space solar power experiments himself and even got a grant from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program in 2011. The result was SPS-ALPHA, which Mankins called “the first practical solar power satellite.” The idea, says Mankins, was “to build a large solar-powered satellite out of thousands of small pieces.” His modular design brought the cost of hardware down significantly, at least in principle.

Jaffe, who was just starting to work on hardware for space solar power at the Naval Research Lab, got excited about Mankins’ concept. At the time he was developing a “sandwich module” consisting of a small solar panel on one side and a microwave transmitter on the other. His electronic sandwich demonstrated all the elements of an actual space solar power system and, perhaps most important, it was modular. It could work beautifully with something like Mankins’ concept, he figured. All they were missing was the financial support to bring the idea from the laboratory into space.

Jaffe invited Mankins to join a small team of researchers entering a Defense Department competition, in which they were planning to pitch a space solar power concept based on SPS-ALPHA. In 2016, the team presented the idea to top Defense officials and ended up winning four out of the seven award categories. Both Jaffe and Mankins described it as a crucial moment for reviving the US government’s interest in space solar power.

They might be right. In October, the Air Force Research Lab announced a $100 million program to develop hardware for a solar power satellite. It’s an important first step toward the first demonstration of space solar power in orbit, and Mankins says it could help solve what he sees as space solar power’s biggest problem: public perception. The technology has always seemed like a pie-in-the-sky idea, and the cost of setting up a solar array on Earth is plummeting. But space solar power has unique benefits, chief among them the availability of solar energy around the clock regardless of the weather or time of day.

It can also provide renewable energy to remote locations, such as forward operating bases for the military. And at a time when wildfires have forced the utility PG&E to kill power for thousands of California residents on multiple occasions, having a way to provide renewable energy through the clouds and smoke doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. (Ironically enough, PG&E entered a first-of-its-kind agreement to buy space solar power from a company called Solaren back in 2009; the system was supposed to start operating in 2016 but never came to fruition.)

“If space solar power does work, it is hard to overstate what the geopolitical implications would be,” Jaffe says. “With GPS, we sort of take it for granted that no matter where we are on this planet, we can get precise navigation information. If the same thing could be done for energy, it would be revolutionary.”

Indeed, there seems to be an emerging race to become the first to harness this technology. Earlier this year China announced its intention to become the first country to build a solar power station in space, and for more than a decade Japan has considered the development of a space solar power station to be a national priority. Now that the US military has joined in with a $100 million hardware development program, it may only be a matter of time before there’s a solar farm in the solar system. SOURCE