California’s biggest utility, PG&E, is seeking approval from state regulators for a power purchase agreement with Solaren Corp., a Southern California company that has contracted to deliver 200 megawatts of clean, renewable power over a 15 year period, beginning in 2016. Power from out of this world, that is.
UPDATE: The California Public Utilities Commission gave its approval yesterday to the project giving it the green light to proceed. Now the ball is in Solaren’s court. Can it raise the capital to get it off the ground — literally in this case. Gary Spirnak the co-founder of Solaren has a space industry background having worked at Boeing Satellite Systems and previously at Hughes & Space Communications. Now armed with the PUCs approval they hope to close funding for $100M — the amount that they will need to to validate their designs in the lab. Will Solaren be able to prove its many skeptics wrong? However this turns out it puts an interesting twist on solar power and this story has just moved on to its next chapter.
Now, if Solaren could just get its website launched — it is presumably under construction — that might be the next small step for their giant leap.
Solaren says it plans to generate the power using solar panels in earth orbit, then convert it to radio frequency energy for transmission to a receiving station in Fresno County. From there, the energy will be converted to electricity, and fed into PG&E’s power grid.
At first glance, this may seem more suitable in a science fiction story than an actual power purchase agreement. However, PG&E has not suddenly lost it’s institutional mind and become a corporate space cadet. First off, PG&E is not investing in or funding this effort in any way; it is only announcing an agreement to purchase said power — should Solaren be able to deliver it by 2016. This power purchase agreement will certainly help Solaren get the large up front funding it needs at very little actual risk to PG&E.
There are some compelling arguments that favor space based solar power solutions. A space based solar collection facility located in high geostationary orbit will almost always be in the sun and will rarely find itself veiled by the Earth’s shadow — a condition we call night time. As such, it can function as a base load power system, and will not suffer the problems of intermittent availability that earth based solar power must face, limited by the day/night cycle, and by weather and seasonal conditions. Furthermore, the power can be beamed to a location that is convenient for the existing grid, and not too remote from the power markets. The problem of remote location is one of the drawbacks of large scale renewable energy harvesting farms, although certainly not an issue for solar power on the rooftop — directly over the consumption node it is servicing. Also, at least for now, space in space is free.
Now for a necessary splash of cold water. The launch costs are so extremely high per unit of mass delivered up into high orbit that unless this cost comes way down, I find it hard to believe that the project can be completed in an economic fashion. Launching a one liter bottle of water into low earth orbit currently will now set you back more than $10,000. I would be curious to see more details on how Solaren plans to fund the upfront launch costs for delivering the many payloads of solar panels and microwave beaming parabola and sundry structures into a high geostationary orbit.
Still, in all, it is an interesting idea, and if they succeed, Californian’s may be getting some of their electricity beamed down to them from outer space.
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