Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: Energy

19:02 Sun 25 Sep 2011
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Given that I’ve chosen FTL travel and FTL communication as well as a scale that involves a fair amount of space, energy production and consumption are going to be important in the setting. The availability and cost of energy help to define many of the parameters of the milieu, including its economy.

In certain respects the setting is wish-fulfillment, and I don’t mean the “wouldn’t it be cool to play around with spaceships and lasers” aspect—I mean that implicit in this setting (and most space opera settings) is the notion that humanity can and will continue to “progress” in a way broadly similar to how we do now. That is, there will be technological breakthroughs and colonization and improvements in the standard of living—above all, though, there will be growth. No hard limits will constrain the growth of human endeavor, only obstacles that may or may not be overcome, such as alien enemies.

In other words, the strong “progress and exploration” cultural narrative is continued, projected into the future. No matter how dystopian the setting, no matter how bleak this future universe is, that narrative is ultimately an optimistic one, likely ludicrously so. Trivialities like the speed of light aside, this is also reflected in the growth of human energy consumption. If we lower approximate growth in energy consumption (not per person, but of the species as a whole) to 2.3% per year, then in about two-and-a-half millennia humanity will require as much energy as is produced by all the stars in the Milky Way. The gory details are dealt with in Tom Murphy’s post “Galactic-Scale Energy”. I haven’t checked his math or assumptions, but even if the math is way off, the conclusions remain fairly inexorable. If he’s off by a factor of ten, then hitting that point will take 25,000 years… but it’s still a limit. That also assumes all kinds of things about optimal energy-capture technologies and so on, and in all likelihood our actual ability to capture and/or produce that kind of energy will hit practical limits far earlier.

It might be an interesting setting where FTL travel and communication is possible but the energy required to make it work is so vast that it’s highly impractical—that leads to something more like the “gate” FTL technologies I covered. That’s not this setting. I’ve already made clear that fundamental physical limitations (i.e. exceeding the speed of light) won’t get in the way of defining the setting, so why balk at absurdly high energy production and consumption rates?

Nevertheless, energy in this universe isn’t free, either. Truly limitless energy would lead to either a utopia[*] or a rapid civilizational demise, whereas what I want here is a setting that generates conflict and tension—both in familiar forms, and thus related to struggles over resources, territory, and economic control. Power, in the political as well as energy sense.

One of the ways in which this works is that as available energy increases, so does demand for it. That’s an entirely realistic projection, and interstellar travel and expansion only make it more so. We could hypothesize that planetary populations, with their futuristic and miraculously efficient technology, could be satisfied consuming, for instance, 10 times as much energy as a modern American. Moving between planets, however, is likely to involve far more energy.

I should state “moving between systems”—while getting out of planetary orbit normally is expensive in energy terms, most developed worlds will have space elevators, making that far cheaper. Moving in space within a system will be cheaper due to the smaller distances involved compared to moving betweens systems.

While it will be different on different planets, in this setting energy production will match energy needs in most planetary cases. Once into space, however, the scale changes and energy requirements become fairly ridiculous. However the FTL technologies work, they demand a lot in energy terms in return for violating physical laws[†].

I’m not sure whether to use fusion or antimatter technology for energy production. There will likely be competing forms of it on planets, but one standard approach for ships, and I’m currently leaning towards something hydrogen-based. Hydrogen is plentiful, and gas giants may be fairly common, making it possible to acquire it in convenient places. This approach also makes certain systems and planets more valuable in energy terms, which again is desirable for its conflict potential.

There’s probably a critical “sweet spot” where energy costs on planets as compared to the costs for interstellar travel make various forms of commerce viable. I’m not going to attempt to work the economics of that out, but the setting has relative costs of energy and technology that mean commerce is viable even for independent operators. In addition, I’m going to assume that some approach to handling the interface between two very different types of economy has been worked out—otherwise, rounding errors around starship fuel purchases might equal the cost of a significant chunk of a city, thus meaning that starship personnel are almost guaranteed to be vastly wealthy in comparison to anyone planet-bound. Some imbalance there is fine, just not imbalances that would effectively prevent these economies from working together.

So, fuel and transport costs are significant, but the so are the rewards involved with interstellar travel, and the various economies involved play—for the most part—nicely together, enabling established interstellar commerce. These economies are nevertheless growth-oriented and resource-hungry, maintaining a drive for expansion.

Various plots in the setting will involve small groups acting independently of larger forces; the price of fuel will make it possible for them to operate, as stated above, but it will also make it challenging, adding to possibilities for crisis. The price point will also make fuel critical for any fleets, in particular any either cut off from support or attempting to act outside of or against the major players in the setting.

[*] This isn’t necessarily true, as it’s likely that existing power structures would attempt to impose artificial scarcity in order to maintain that structure, but unlimited energy certainly makes utopia rather more likely.

[†] A side effect of this is that ships will have large surpluses of energy available, and this helps justify the common use of likely energy-hungry technologies like artificial gravity and other “field” technology.

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