The Energy and Information Economy

Commerce and influence in the world of Slower Than Light seem neigh-impossible at first glance.  Shipping goods across interstellar distances is impractical for anything but the absolute most unique of artifacts.  With the shortest trips between stars taking decades, and the extraordinary expense of safely moving humans between worlds, deploying armies would be utterly impractical; even if an ark carrying tens of thousands of troops was sent at fantastic expense, the destinations would have the time to develop a military-industrial complex almost from scratch before the attackers arrived to a defense custom-built to defend against them.

In Slower Than Light, the only ships to plow the void, with precious few exceptions, will be the unmanned probes gathering information on target starsystems, and the seedships carrying hundreds or thousands of colonists.  How, then, can humanity’s scattered children have any impact on each other, enough to be a cohesive entity?

The only practically tradeable commodities are those that can be shipped at or near light-speed.  The two major components of these will be Research and Power.

Research and technology is tradeable between worlds in Slower Than Light much as it is in other games in the 4X genre, albeit on a longer timescale.  Colonies that can communicate with each other can share the fruits of their research programs, and give each other the information they need to replicate each other’s technology.

The other means of influencing other worlds is an outgrowth of  technology.  Any given star system will contain more raw resources than any colony is likely to use in the course of a game, and so the only limiting factor is if the energy available to harvest and convert those resources exists.  Using extremely tightly confined beams of radiation, colonies can trade in energy itself.

Most obviously, newly-founded colonies will benefit from receiving beamed power from the homeworld.  As the technology evolves, more power generation capacity and less loss in transfer will allow older, more mature settlements to give energy to the factions they want to help on other worlds, and help them maintain their influence over their colonies.  As those colonies grow and generate their own surpluses, they then can send power on to other colonies, and the web of influence grows.

These two forms of trade interact in very different ways.  Trading information is very straight-forward; presuming that each side actually wants what the other is offering, an exchange can be anything that both sides deem fair, although obviously lengthy back-and-forth negotiating will be exactly that.

Power transmission is a bit trickier.  Every beam spreads as it travels, and so falls off exponentially as it travels further.  Using ever-shorter frequencies of light, wider and therefore less divergent beams of power will help mitigate the power loss in transmission, but it is much more efficient to beam the power short distances rather than long distances.

The influence of power transmission is also dependent on where the power is being sent.  There’s no benefit in beaming energy to a location if the power of the beam is less than they can get from their own star.  Because of this, beamed power garners the most impact when used to influence settlements far from stars and other readily-accessible energy sources.  Planets far from their parent stars and ships plying the interstellar void would be particularly dependent on the energy sent to them from other places, while planets orbiting close to their parent stars or those around particularly bright stars would be less moved by the offer of transmitted power.

Of course shipping very small objects on very faster courier will be an option, and might be necessary for certain objectives, but the real economy of the interstellar empire in Slower Than Light is built off of the faster courier there are or ever will be: photons.

5 thoughts on “The Energy and Information Economy”

  1. Hmmm…

    I don’t see any way under physics as we understand it today that it could be even mildly cost-effective to beam energy between stars in a way that would be cost-effective. And, even if this were possible, it would be /far/ more useful as a weapon rather than an energy delivery system.

    Earth consumed 20,279TWh in 2008 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_energy_consumption — isn’t Google /amazing/). Figure that an off-world source would need to provide 10% of that to have a “seat at the table” when influencing colony decisions — that’s 2,279 TWh. The first wiki article provides a formula to convert W-h into joules (1 W·h = 3600 joule), so 2.279 TWh = 8,204,400 TJ and another wiki article provides information about nuclear weapon yields in terms of TJ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_weapon_yield) and also indicates the sum total of /all/ nuclear weapons ever detonated on the Earth = 2,135,000 TJ, so…

    Pretty clearly the energy transfer devices would make a *fine* weapon, if one was so inclined — and, given human nature, I can’t imagine a colony considering building such a device (much less pointing it at them) to be anything other than an act of war.

    Now, you can, and likely should, handwave all of this away — “The energy is transferred via an intro-dimensional conduit [still limited by the speed of light], and while in this conduit it has no effect on the observable universe. A receiver device, placed in the proper location, can convert this energy back into the form of electricity which the target can consume”, for example — but you /do/ need to handwave it.

    In most games you could even get away without a handwave, but you’ve established this game as “ultra-realistic”, so when you need to introduce non-realistic elements such as this then you should make it clear that you /know/ it is unrealistic so you don’t get comments like this. 🙂

    Otherwise, this sounds like a good mechanic, /if/ you are positioning the players relationship with the colonies they are found as antagonistic. Rather than building an empire of their own (as is standard in 4X games), you are actually founding the empires that you will be competing / interacting with for the remainder of the game. It /should/ work, although it may be discourage the players from founding more than a few colonies, as they attempt to keep the number of competing actors to a minimum.

    1. First off, I’ll admit that in all of classical physics, EM is my weakest topic, so my math may be suspect when I was designing this part of the game. The handwave for this particular idea in my notes was that both the transmitter and receiver would have to be spaceborne (which makes sense for a few other reasons mainly related to finding power sources capable of generating the beam you would need), and that the transfer beam would 1) have a very wide waist (to the tune of 100m) and 2) be very high frequency. In the Extreme Ultraviolet band, using a 100 sq km receiver at 11.9 light-years (Tau Ceti), you capture something like 2.44 x 10^-7 of what you transmit, or about 244 kilowatts for every terawatt of input power. Terrible conversion rate, but 244 kilowatts might be more to a colony or ship than a terawatt is to the homeworld.

      If we crank down the wavelength, we get better conversion rates. If we use vacuum-rated UV (10nm), we get 2.4 megawatts for every terawatt we send. If we decide firing extremely high-powered lasers of ionizing radiation at inhabited ships and colonies doesn’t scare us too badly, we can get into the X-Ray spectrum, and pull double-digit numbers of megawatts out of our beam. Finally, if we go completely off the deep end, presume we can generate gamma rays at controlled frequencies, and we have meaningful way to capture and convert that beam back into useful energy, we could ostensibly transfer even more efficiently, but now we’re intentionally firing mini-GRB’s at each other, and the potential for accidental warfare becomes hilarious.

      1. Well, if the amount of energy received is very low, the receiver itself is very expensive to build, and (for a colony, at least) the receiver alone isn’t enough — you have to build another transmitter / receiver pair to get the energy received down to the surface resulting in /another/ efficiency hit….

        Why wouldn’t the colony just spend all of those resources to build a fusion power plant instead? The resource cost should be much lower (deep space constructions are, after all, expensive — any technology that would reduce this cost could apply equally well to the construction of a fusion generator), the man-power cost should also be lower, and the “cost / MW” delivered should be much, much better. Hydrogen to use for fuel is almost certain not to be an issue, given that we are talking about /humans/ here, so water has to be abundantly available or the colony has other, far more serious concerns than a lack of electricity.

        For ships, small amounts of energy like this might be useful, especially if they are getting propulsion out of the deal as well (laser driven light sails, for example). But only generation ships would be at risk for “revolt” in the first place, so I’m not seeing this as a major gameplay element.

  2. Oh, and just to point out another problem that requires handwaving — 2,279 TWh passing through the atmosphere of a planet would be… Bad. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space-based_solar_power shows that microwave space based transmissions are expected to have an efficiency of ~85% (energy transmitted v. energy received). The missing energy is obviously absorbed by the atmosphere. When you are talking about, say, 10 GW-h, the energy loss is ~1.5 GW-h, or 5,400 GJ, or 5.4 TJ being dumped into the atmosphere. Based on the wiki article, this isn’t considered a problem (it is a /big/ energy sink, and the energy density is assumed to be low), but when you start running 1000 TW-h through the atmosphere without increasing the beams diameter I suspect that concerns would be raised in short order.

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