Major Utility Company Makes Agreement for Space Based Solar Power

Article written: 15 Apr , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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One of the largest utility companies in the US has decided to look towards space to find more power. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) in California announced a proposed agreement with startup company Solaren Corporation to provide 200 mega watts of space based solar power (SBSP) starting in 2016. PG&E is now seeking approval from California state regulators for permission to sign this agreement. While PG&E is not making any financial investment at this time, the announcement shows that SBSP is being taken seriously as a viable energy source. PG&E and the two other California utilities are required by the state to source 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2010 and 30 percent by 2017. None are producing the required amount so far.

Solaren Corporation is a small, 8-year-old company based in California whose executives have experience working for Boeing and Lockheed Martin. According to PG&E’s website, 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 California. From there, the energy will be converted to electricity and fed into PG&E’s power grid

The proposed agreement is for the delivery of 200MW starting in 2016 for 15 years.

Earlier this year Universe Today interviewed Peter Sage from Space Energy, another SBSP company. Sage said in a statement released today that this announcement is a
“huge step forward for both Solaren and Space Energy as it highlights to the investment community that utility firms are willing to recognize Space-Based Solar Power as a credible and viable source of energy.” Sage added that while the 200 mega watts Solaren is planning to provide represents only 20% of the planned capacity of one of Space Energy’s satellites, it successfully validates the overall business case for SBSP within the larger energy industry.

The U.S. Department of Energy and NASA began seriously studying the concept of solar power satellites in the 1970s, again in the 1990’s and 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.”

It seems like a win-win situation for PG&E. They told their customers, “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.”

PG&E has 5.1 million electric customer accounts and 4.2 million natural-gas customer accounts in Northern and Central California.

Sources: Space Energy press release, PG&E website


31 Responses

  1. Matthias says

    Anonymous, assuming a square array and geostationary orbit, the panels would cover about 1/16000 of the sun’s area in the sky. there would be no discernible shadowing.

    BeckyWS, the beauty of it is that there is a lot of room and sunlight in space. You can make up for the losses.

  2. Sofia says

    A very good initiative !

  3. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Oh dear no.
    Can you imagine how bright such an object would be in the night sky, in will kill amateur and professional astronomy.
    Next there will be another energy race just taking over the skies.
    Try wind, solar, thermal, tidal or improve efficiency and eliminate planned obsolescence. (Often known as the greatest American swearword! ) Stop killing the environment on Earth and in space.
    Pretty stupid idea.

  4. BeckyWS says

    Just wondering (aside from Crumb’s issues), whether changing the energy into radio then electricity would work, and whether it would mean loss of energy.

    Just thinking if it is possible to beam it from space, whey can’t we use radio to beam energy from high insolation areas on the surface?

  5. Anonymous says

    I do not agree with this technology.
    More objects in orbit capturing the solar light means that more shadows will be cast here below, which leads to less and less exposure to sunlight for our planet.
    That will lead to Global Cooling, my friends.

  6. Simon says

    This could be good for space exploration. Send the power out the other way

  7. solrey says

    The ISS, with it’s new solar panels, only generates ~120 Kilowatts. Enough to power about 42 McMansions. Panel area is nearly an acre. This SBSP is supposed to produce 200 MEGAwatts? How big are those panels supposed to be anyway? 1,700 Acres? 7 million square meters? How will solar storms effect reliable and steady energy delivery?
    Sounds pretty sketchy, this idea.

    There are numerous, viable, proven and “grounded” options being developed for efficient, renewable energy production. How much money is this thing pulling out of that pool? At least PG&E is not investing in it, maybe they learned something from their Enron debacle in Cali.

  8. Wolter says

    “then convert it to radio frequency energy for transmission to a receiving station in California.”

    Due to a runaway giroscoop, the beam of highly concentraded radio energy swooped over a californian housing estate, effectively cooking the inhabitants.

    Oops…

  9. solrey says

    @beckyws
    Tesla invented that concept around a hundred years ago. Not with a satellite, though. His idea utilized the Earth and ionosphere. The research being conducted by HAARP is based on Teslas work in this regard. Construction on Wardenclyffe Tower (the transmitter) was abandoned after JP Morgan pulled funding upon realizing that the energy delivered could not be metered. Morgan used his considerable influence to basically get Tesla blackballed. Morgan was protecting his ’empire of financial interests’, which was his one and only concern.

  10. Layman says

    “then convert it to radio frequency energy”

    Is this like a laser beam from space aimed at a earth based collector?

    This is interesting and I am sure that someone believes that this will work.

  11. Jorge says

    Well, in the energetic situation we’re in, and more so in the energetic situation we’ll be further on when oil becomes just another luxury product, I think we do well if we study all possibilities of energy production, along with every concievable way to improve energetic efficiency and cut waste.

    However.

    We still don’t have affordable means of space travel. The construction of anything in space is extremely expensive. So I can’t see this being a competitive method of energy production in the forseable future. It should be studied, yes, but I’m very, very skeptical about its implementation and viability. And there’s a second little “but” to take into account.

    The Earth is warming because its energetic balance is being disrupted. With the release of fossil energy, which is nothing but solar energy that had been stored chemically for millions of years, the sum of the energy energy the Earth receives from the sun and the one we are releasing is higher than the amount of energy the planet radiates to space. This is exhacerbated by the release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which are closing further the infrared windows in the atmosphere, which should be opened to compensate for the energetic inbalance. If we produce energy in space to send down to Earth, we are adding to the problem by tapping a portion of solar energy which would not be normally available in the planet. Note that even if the orbiting station passes between us and the sun (and it probably won’t: an inclined and high enough – or a low, polar – orbit would allow it to be permanently in the sun and not cast shadows on the planet) for most of its orbit it isn’t casting shadows, i.e., it isn’t grabbing solar radiation that would otherwise come down to Earth.

    In sum, yes, let’s study the matter. But let’s keep these two factors very present in our minds while we do it. Please. It’s about time we stop being irresponsible with our only home.

  12. David R. says

    The idea (or similar idea) COULD HAVE been implemented nearly a century ago. This is yet another example of major industries dragging ass on any initiative until they have to do something. My hope is that the idea will be developed in a way that is available, usable and completely affordable for individual consumers to implement on their own…however that plays out. We need to quit relying on major conglomerates to harness whatever technology that strikes their self-serving fancy. I believe we should be teaching people to become self sufficient…in matters of food, water, and energy. In my community, there are people doing just that…they’re off the grid and rely on their own energy, water and grow their own crops. It works quite well. In the meantime, I hope Tesla comes back and haunts those PG&E f***ers.

  13. jose luis says

    I think the time for such a project has not come yet. Our technology is not ready to deal with the huge risks of beaming down considerable power, even if economically it could be feasible (which is far from being evident).

    So far it seems to me just an idea to cheat on the laws requiring a 20/30 percentage of “renewable energies” to be produced by the utilities. They may be working on an impractical project just to gain time, until better times arrive for them (no idea how this could happen)

    However, the day we could use this idea together with space elevators, using a high electrically conductive tether cable, it would become safer and probably feasible.

    Space elevators are not so far in the future even with present materials technology. L ot of research is currently aroun carbon nanotubes that probably could be made strong, light and electrically conductive enough for such a project come true.

    Or so I hope.

  14. jose luis says

    Concerning the utopia of relying only in personal resources (for food, water and energy) and avoiding urban conglomerates, it is a romantic view of the world, suitable for only a few elected that have the necessary land and knowledge.

    We are over 6.5 billions people in this planet and counting up. No way we could have just a tenth of this population living in such a perfect way of life. No place and resources for that, unfortunately.

  15. Kevin says

    how big can this satellite be if it is going to blasted into space aboard a rocket. It seems that any tiny satellite that could be put in orbit could be replicated on earth in much larger fashion.

    You obviously don’t have to worry about dark if you get the sattellite in orbit, but i can’t believe the process they are talking about would be all that efficient that we couldn’t reproduce somehting as good on the ground.

    Let’s start filling up death vallet with solar collectors. Make the area good for somehting.

  16. Peter says

    Only 14 days late, i think….

  17. Cynthia says

    The odds of something this big being taken out by a few small pieces or space garbage? 100%

  18. Sci-Fi Si says

    This is a major milestone in the book of man’s journey into space.

    A viable business that raises the barrier. This endeavour may only be in low Earth orbit, but it is yet another step closer to making a space based economy viable.

    From LEO to the Moon, then from the Moon to Mars or possibly mineral collection from asteroids. It saves the natural resources of the Earth. It’s ‘Green’ and the resources available to mankind out in space are unlimited.

    Good one.

  19. Max says

    Depends on the orbit, and depends on its construction.

    Not all orbital lanes are clogged full of garbage. If this things hanging way out by a Lagrange point, the chance of impacting anything is minor (as is the chance of it ruining the night sky).

    So far as construction goes, the question is how big does a satellite have to be to generate, say, one megawatt.
    If they can launch something thats a self deploying and stand alone machine. They can probably launch 10 or 100 of them. Making it a very feasible to generate power (if not the cheapest… but we are after quality over cost, or we would just burn more coal).

    Worries for long term maintenance will be dealt with later. Most of todays satellites last just long enough to become obsolete, and have to be replaced anyway.

    I think, in the end, adding bright objects to the sky is more helpful to the astronomers cause than harmful. Having space craft in orbit that can be seen by the naked eye is an easy way to make people fans of space.
    Not to mention that cheap launches also mean more space based telescopes and instruments.

  20. Another Drew says

    1) If they want it to be a baseload supply (meaning it is permanent and not intermittent), they’ll have to put it in geo. Gravity gradients probably won’t be a big problem at geo, but solar pressure will be a huge problem meaning station keeping will be a constant concern.

    2) To gather enough power, the arrays will have to be huge. To maintain station, it will need considerable fuel. Both increase the weight of the vehicle and add to the expense.

    3) To beam the power to Earth from geo and not have it tapped by “pirate” users, the beam will have to be _very_ narrow…

    I wonder what effect this will have on terrestrial radio communication…

    I can’t wait to see the environmental impact assesment for this one!

    Peace,
    Drew

  21. pantzov says

    by 2016?

    sorry, not a chance.

  22. Vincent says

    “WooWoo Adds on Universe Today”?

    Oh boy!

  23. kanawa says

    Dumb idea.
    Money would be better spent on nuclear and coal power plants.

  24. Loki says

    This is going to be very expensive. The cost of design/ development of the satellite, launching all that tonnage to orbit (others have already pointed out the huge area of solar panels needed; even if you do use mirrors to concentrate the sunlight on the panels as in the picture) and the O&M costs of operating the satellite as well as ground infrastructure for 15 years will go into the price of every kW-hr of power. Let’s take a quick stab at the math:

    200MW = 200000kW
    200000kW*15yrs*365days/yr*24hrs/day = ~28 Billion kW-hrs over the life of the satellite

    Assuming the total cost of everything I listed above is only $20 Billion (probably a low ball estimate I just pulled out of thin air)

    $20 Billion/28 Billion kW-hrs = ~$0.71/kW-hr.

    I don’t know what the current rate is in CA, but it’s probably a heck of a lot less than that. And like I said the $20 Billion is just a very rough guess and I probably low balled it by quite a bit.

  25. Sci-Fi Si says

    It’s true, it would have to be massive to supply a substantial percent of a power station.

    It also could be dangerous if it missed it’s target receiver on Earth (think death ray)

    However if it were to aim its focus to a position above Earth… say the top of a carbon nanotube space elivator… humm it could even power the space elivator

    The sci-fi possibilities 🙂
    lol

  26. Sci-Fi Si says

    p.s
    The energy it supplied to the space elivator would then become the cost of what it takes to get into space…

  27. Sci-Fi Si says

    We need to try and make ‘space’ a viable business. Yes we could do it cheaper here on Earth, but that’s not the point. The point is – can we make it viable?

    Our future is to expand into space and stop abusing the resources of Earth (the only planet we know of in the Universe that actually has life – The ultimate expression of creation. We are the highest form of creation that we know of. The universe is able to know of itself through us. We need to take this life and without fear (read ‘boldly go’), spread into the unknown so that the universe might know more of itself. We are part of it and it is a part of us, expressed in what we call ‘life’.

    I think it is our responsibility, cleverly and sustainably, to make the most of the resources we have at hand so we can bring life to where there is none.

    Considering we are ‘space enthusiasts’ as well as scientists with common sense. I feel it is our duty to support endeavours such as this, as long as they are potentially realistic achievements and have even moderate financial viability. (I’m sure the Egyptians didn’t think ‘sod it, lets just build a few bungalows…) The resources on Earth are finite. The resources available to us out in space – if only we could get there – are unlimited, vast beyond our imagination. The day we stop trying to reach for the stars, is the day we lose a part of ourselves.

  28. Finally, we are starting to see solar power being used in a constructive way.

    Solar farms and heliostats out in space are a great idea, it may be a worthwhile exercise to roll out such technologies en masse at ground level first.

    The only worthy heliostat farm worthy of mentioning is the Solucar Solar plant in Seville, Spain.

    There really isn’t any need for the utility company, PG&E to invest their billions in space technologies, when they can just as easily implement the same technologies in any equatorial ‘sunny’ location.

  29. dbdncr says

    Inverse Square Law

    physical quantity or strength is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source of that physical quantity.

    and somehow, someone thinks that converting dc via solar, to RF via some really stupidly large transmitter, to a receiving station on earth through the atmosphere, converting RF back to DC, subsequently converting that DC into a usable form of AC for our electrical grid… Is somehow efficient and will power california…

    besides the fact that we’re adding energy to our atmosphere that would have not under normal circumstances arrived at earth… I really want someone to show me the tech specs of a 200 megawatt RF transmitter

    take a 150kw radar transmitter and paint a target from 25k feet that’s effectively fifty miles away and you’ll recieve a signal back in the milliwatt range.

    this seems like a really stupid idea….

  30. Winston says

    Dumbest idea I have ever heard of. Why doesn’t the enterprise just beam down energy. Has everyone now lost their mind?

  31. Tutweiler says

    Spock has told me the idea is feasible and he and Al Gore are figuring out the details since they are the biggest minds in the universe.
    When a company such as PG&E takes this seriously it must be the end of days.

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