The Importance of Infrastructure – alternately, Bootstrapping Civilization on Another Planet

I thought of this question when I read the news about a SuperEarth that’s only 22 light years away. What would you need to take to another planet to bootstrap civilization? To build up civilization enough such that it could survive on its own without any assistance from Earth? Initially, you’d probably send some autonomous robots and satellites to the planet to scan for information to make sure it’s hospitable to humans. From there, you’d want to build up infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the parts of civilization that give you the ability to grow food, get clean water, and have a peaceful and prosperous society. It starts with an energy source, but you’ll bring that with you (probably nuclear or fusion-based). You might want to build a primitive navigation system (something like GPS) and a geographic database so you could have maps to know where resources are. You’d also want some sort of weather satellite to know when you’re going to get hit with hurricanes/typhoons, tornados, etc. The atmospheric data would be useful for growing crops. The first few generations would be rough – there wouldn’t be much in the way of creature comforts like sports and entertainment, unless you want to watch the World Series from 22 years ago.

Eventually you have to be able to stop using what you brought with you and transition to using what is on the planet. In other words, you have to get to sustainability. Eventually, the nuclear fuel you use will run out, the satellites orbiting the planet will run out of propellant and no longer be able to control their orbit. The good news is that we have knowledge! This new civilization wont need to go through stages like the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. We know how to smelt aluminum, what Portland Cement is made of and how to make large batches of it, and we know what it takes to get things into orbit.

But we still need the manpower to make all this stuff and to collect the raw materials. Its the other end of the economies of scale – building out a small civilization with only several thousand people means you have to pick and choose what you do – you don’t have an entire planet’s population to draw on for a diverse set of resources. Picking the right things to specialize in might make the difference between survival or colony collapse. This means government intervention – the people in charge will have a plan (likely drawn up before they left Earth) and want to stick to it to ensure success.

Lets say we’ve picked an area near a large river, and we want to provide a source of power, control the annual floods as well as create a lake to use as a reservoir for our potable water supply (and sometime down the road, recreation). So we want to build a large hydroelectric dam. We need an incredibly large amount of steel and cement, along with the turbines and power distribution system. What goes in to Portland Cement you might ask… well we need to mine a large amount of limestone and gypsum for the basis of the cement, plus some other minerals. From there, we need to build a cement mill to grind the raw materials into the powder needed to create the cement mix. How do you build a cement mill? Beyond that, we need the people to make all that stuff, and build the dam! The average amount of people working on the Hoover Dam in the 1930s was 5,000 people. Even with technological advances in terms of automation, will you even have that many able-bodied men and women in the colony to complete the project?

In modern society we take so much for granted in terms of infrastructure. But when none of that exists, not even foundries to create steel for building other factories with, you start to have to get creative on how to rebuild that infrastructure or what can you take with you from Earth to the new colony.

Do we take raw materials? Can we mine minerals from asteroids on the way there? How does the new civilization launch replacement satellites, or get back into space if a few generations down the road they figure out that the planet just isn’t hospitable, or to study and explore nearby planets and moons? They know how rockets work, but do they have the incredible industrial machinery necessary to build one? Do they have the manpower necessary to operate the supply chain from raw materials to finished rocket and replacement satellite?

With all this work to do, the last question is how do you keep the colony going and growing? How do they find time to do all of these things with such few people, and still manage to raise sufficiently large families (5-6 kids each for many generations) necessary to populate the planet and ensure a viable future? How do they educate them? Who runs the schools and universities? What about technological advancements and research and development?

This is the “soft infrastructure” side of development – the government, the institutions necessary to operate in a civilized society? Does it operate as a military-style dictatorship for the first 50 years, then evolve into a democracy? If you choose democracy out of the gate, how do you keep it from making bad decisions based on self-interest that could imperil the entire colony?

In short, infrastructure (hard and soft) is incredibly important. And it turns out that colonizing another planet might be equal parts developing the technology to make the journey, building the colony when you finally arrive, and successfully governing the colony’s early years.

iPhone 5S is a great upgrade from the 4S, but…

As a nerd who follows Apple, I have to maintain a delicate zen-balancing of wanting the latest and greatest, with the best specs and fastest everything, with the understanding Apple isn’t about the specs.

But the iPhone 5S is mostly a miss for this iPhone 5 owner. Its a great upgrade over a 4S model – users who upgrade from the 4S will see amazing speed improvements in the CPU, GPU, cellular connectivity (LTE), and WiFi reception (using the 5GHz band instead of the ultra-congested 2.4GHz band).

But for the iPhone 5S, the areas in which Apple showed the biggest improvement (CPU, GPU) were already fast enough me, and iOS was always responsive even with the iOS 7 betas. I remember many times on my 4S while I was waiting for something to download and process, but I don’t have that on the iPhone 5 – between the A6 CPU and LTE, I’m quite content.

The areas that I did want to see improvement – LTE-Advanced radios, 802.11ac WiFi, and battery life went missing or didn’t get improved that much (battery life got a tiny boost, but not as much as I was hoping for if they had used IGZO screens).

I’m almost tempted to hold out and wait another year for the iPhone 6, particularly because I pay the premium to buy the 64GB model. I cant hold out because I already promised my phone to a family member when I bought it and used their upgrade, but I think that if I could, I would hold out for the 6.

Its a change in the way the cell phone market exists – phones only need to be compelling in two respects 1) against current competitors and 2) upgrade-worthy over the two year ago model once you’re locked into an ecosystem. All other concerns for Apple reside in the “ease of use” and “margins and profit” categories.

Net metering for solar power isn’t sustainable, so it will end

Recently, utilities in two states have started the process of ending the net metering incentives for solar power installed on homes. With the advent of solar power financing companies like SolarCity that will finance the cost of the solar power system and take the payments from the savings on your power bill, the number of solar power installations on homes is proliferating. But when you play out the scenario of most single-family homes having solar power on the roof, and net metering providing them with a bill of around $10-20 each month, you discover that net metering isn’t sustainable for the balance sheets of utilities – so here we are at the end of net metering.

The underlying economics is why net metering isn’t sustainable for the grid or the utility that runs it. The 11c per kWh (national average) you pay is really three component parts – the electricity generation (including the power plant and the feedstock used as fuel), the transmission and distribution infrastructure costs (power lines from the plant to your city, high-voltage distribution throughout your city, lower voltage distribution to your neighborhood, and finally 240V distribution from you local transformer to your house), and overhead and profit (the costs of running the company).

The costs of each are about 5-7c for generation and fuel, 3c for transmission and distribution and the remainder for the overhead/profit. Beyond these cost estimates, the price of electricity varies throughout the day (on- and off-peak pricing) as well as different times of year due to supply (from hydroelectric generation stations in the spring) and demand (air conditioners in the summer and electric heaters in the winter).

When you’re generating solar power to use within your own house, you’re eliminating the demand for the first two items in that list – generation and transmission/distribution. But you haven’t eliminated the third, while the grid just sits underutilized but still must be paid for (capital costs and maintenance). Beyond that, when you’re generating more than you can use within your own home, you’re increasing the cost of the generated fuel from 5-7c to the net-metered cost (11c), and using the local distribution network (at a fractional rate of the whole), so the cost of electricity to the power company goes from 11c to about 17c per kWh. This was acceptable to most utilities when the on-peak summer prices for energy were 15c or more per kWh. But current spot market prices hover anywhere between 5 to 8c per kWh, which means they could buy extra power cheaper on the spot market than a customer selling their excess solar back to the grid under a net metering program. Bottom line is that the utility is forcing customers without solar power to subsidize those with solar power.

I’m still bullish on solar power – but the rate structures will have to change, and likely become more complex, and more in line with how commercial and industrial customers are charged. The structure would like be both consumption and capacity based. You would be charged for power consumption at 6c/kWh, plus demand charges based on the maximum power you’ve drawn from the grid over the 12 months (e.g. 6.3kW on July 15). Using solar would cut your consumption and likely decrease your maximum power, but the free ride is over.

Beyond net metering, grid-battery integration will have to become cheaper and more feasible so that those who generate solar power can store their own over-generation and use it at later times to bring down their costs.