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Solar Into Space
Green Futures, 5 Aug 09

By Anna Simpson

California buys energy generated in space

Californians could be catching the rays come rain or shine if the world’s first space-based solar power project gets off the ground. Plans to send a solar farm into orbit are awaiting final approval after a major power provider signed an agreement to buy solar energy generated in space.

The satellite power station, intended for launch in 2016, will have a total capacity of 1,000MW. It will supply up to 200MW energy to major Californian power provider Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), with the aim of delivering 1,700GWh per year over a 15-year term. The power generated will be converted into radio frequencies and collected by an Earth-based receiving station. This in turn will convert the waves back into electricity for use on the grid.

The concept of space-based solar farms has drawn interest since the 1960s, with researchers at NASA pursuing the obvious advantage of more or less continuously available sunlight.

One of the major obstacles to space solar power has been cost.

But Solaren – a company founded in 2001 to make the concept a reality – claims to have come up with a design that will minimise the size and weight of the power station, making it both easier and cheaper to launch. Instead of being held together by heavy cables and struts, the station’s free-floating components will be aligned through remote control software, and a giant inflatable mirror will concentrate light onto highly efficient cells.

If the plan – to be approved by state regulators by the end of October – goes ahead, PG&E will enter a 15-year contract with Solaren. According to PG&E’s Brian Cherry, the new technology “would represent a breakthrough in the renewable power industry”.

Professor Philip Eames from the Centre for Renewable Energy Systems Technology calls it “an exciting and feasible idea, with nice new ways of making the reflectors lighter”. He adds that the cost remains “quite high, compared with competing technologies such as wind – but it’s the first attempt, and the price may come down in the future”. Meanwhile, Solaren will be looking for investment of $5 billion to fund the manufacture and launch.

This piece originally appeared in Green Futures, published by Forum for the Future, one of the leading magazines on environmental solutions and sustainable futures. Its aim is to demonstrate that a sustainable future is both practical and desirable – and can be profitable, too.

Image credit: Flickr/acbo, Creative Commons License.

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I'm all for innovative projects, but I don't think we can take this deal at face value...

An alternative explanation of PG&E's behavior is that they need to show their regulators that they are "doing everything they can" to meet California's renewable portfolio standard, which requires that a certain percentage of CA's electricity comes from non-fossil sources. So, it's not really that space-based solar makes sense, but that signing a speculative deal helps get the regulators off PG&E's back. Which is fine, unless you want PG&E to put that heft behind real projects that have a chance of succeeding within the next few years.

It's worth noting, too, that space-based solar power was one of the earliest suggestions made my scientists after decently efficient photovoltaics came around in the 50s. (It just makes so much sense with the technological aesthetic of the megabuilder; plus at the time NASA had tons of cash, so latching onto that effort made institutional sense, too.)

The problem is that launching shit into space is expensive, like really, really, expensive. And so is building stuff for space. And so is assembling stuff in space.

Posted by: Alexis Madrigal on 6 Aug 09

Anyone have any idea what happens to a person on the ground when the satellite's transmitting antenna gets misaligned and someone is suddenly getting 200 megawatts of concentrated radio waves beamed onto them from the sky?

Posted by: Craig Hepworth on 6 Aug 09

The beam is harmless to birds and people - it's a different wavelength.

Launch costs are high because nobody wants to put anything in space. Nobody wants to put anything in space because launch costs are high. It takes some pioneers like these guys to bring the costs down.

Posted by: Ben on 15 Aug 09

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