Space Solar Power: The Next Frontier ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

PG&E's Next 100 blog has a post on an old staple of science fiction that may be turning into reality - space based solar power - Space Solar Power: The Next Frontier?. I still fail to see how this could be cost competitive with desert based CSP plants or even rooftop PV, but I'm all for experimentation.

As part of PG&E's commitment to providing more renewable energy to its customers, the utility has supported a wide range of technologies, including wind, geothermal, biomass, wave and tidal, and at least a half dozen types of solar thermal and photovoltaic power.

Now PG&E is extending that approach to tap renewable energy at an entirely new level: solar power in space.

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.

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. (See interview with Solaren CEO Gary Spirnak.)

Space Solar disk.jpgWhy would anyone choose so challenging a locale to generate electricity? For one, the solar energy available in space is eight-to-ten times greater than on earth. There's no atmospheric or cloud interference, no loss of sun at night, and no seasons. That means space solar can be a baseload resource, not an intermittent source of power.

In addition, real estate in space is still free (if hard to reach). Solaren needs to acquire land only for an energy receiving station. It can locate the station near existing transmission lines, greatly reducing delays that face some renewable power projects sited far from existing facilities.

While the concept of space solar power makes sense, making it all work at an affordable cost is a major challenge, which Solaren says it can solve.

Solaren's team includes satellite engineers and scientists, primarily from the U.S. Air Force and Hughes Aircraft Company, with decades of experience in the space industry. Its CEO, Gary Spirnak, was a spacecraft project engineer in the U.S. Air Force and director of advanced digital applications at Boeing Satellite Systems, among other positions.

They also have a long history of research to draw upon. The U.S. Department of Energy and NASA began seriously studying the concept of solar power satellites in the 1970s, followed by a major "fresh look" in the Clinton administration. ...

In 2007, a major study by the Defense Department's National Security Space Office gave the concept another boost, concluding that "there is enormous potential for energy security, economic development, improved environmental stewardship . . and overall national security for those nations who construct and possess a SBSP capability."

The study group further declared, "Space-Based Solar Power is more technically executable than ever before and current technological vectors promise to further improve its viability."

So much for the concept. Can Solaren really deliver electricity to PG&E customers by 2016, the year it has contracted to begin commercial operation?

If Solaren succeeds, PG&E's customers have a great opportunity to benefit from affordable clean energy. There is no risk to PG&E customers; PG&E has contracted only to pay for power that Solaren delivers.

Solaren will work with citizen groups and government agencies to support the project's development. Solaren is responsible for getting all the necessary permits and approvals from federal, state and local agencies. Among other things, Solaren will have to prove that its technology satisfies all applicable safety standards, an issue that space power enthusiasts have addressed in detail, but is nonetheless sure to be controversial.

From PG&E's perspective, as a supporter of new renewable energy technology, this project is a first-of-a-kind step worth taking. If Solaren succeeds, the world of clean energy will never be the same.


It can't be cost competitive with current technology, and maybe not at all. It also won't be delivered.

To even begin to be feasible, solar power satellites will require two things:
1) A radical reduction in cost to orbit. Currently we're looking at $5000-$10000 per pound to LEO. You would need AT LEAST an order of magnitude reduction in that cost.
2) Extensive space-borne construction experience. Consider how big a deal it was to deploy one solar panel on the ISS. A SPS would require thousands of times as much on-orbit construction.

Also, #1 is probably a prerequiste for #2. Until orbital access is cheap enough to allow for real space industry, we won't accumulate enough on-orbit experience to seriously consider tackling something like this.

Suggesting we could build an SPS in the near future is like saying "hey, we can construct beaver damns fairly reliably. Time to get to work on Hoover dam." It's just silly.

My analysis: This is an opportunity for PG&E to get some free green publicity and "demonstrate" their interest in meeting their RPS requirements. When the power doesn't appear in 2016, they can just throw up their hands and say "we tried, not our fault".

This is the next in space frontier! great blog.

In PG&E's defence, I think they are backing a lot of other solar power projects - haven't they signed up for some of the big proposed CSP plants ?

But I agree this one is unlikely to deliver by 2016...

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