April Fools’ Day is long gone, so PG&E’s latest blog post can’t be blamed on that: The Northern California utility just announced that it will be seeking approval from state regulators for a 200 MW power purchase agreement with Solaren, a company building solar panels in space. Yes, that’s space, as in where the moon is and astronauts go. PG&E says Solaren’s technology can take power from the solar panels and convert it into radio frequency energy, which it can then beam down to a receiver in California’s Fresno County.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Both the federal government and individual companies have been trying to figure out a way to do this for years — at least as far back as 1968, with Peter Glaser — and in 2007 the National Security Space Office released a report recommending how to lay the groundwork for commercial development of solar in space. PG&E writes that the advantages of space solar is that it’s 8-10 times greater than Earth-based solar — and space real estate is technically free.
But the fact that the government has been working on the idea for years isn’t necessarily encouraging. The technology has had such clear technical and economic hurdles that it hasn’t gotten very far. Most importantly it’s been prohibitively expensive. The NSSO entitled an appendix to its report as “10 Years — 10 Megawatts — $10 Billion.” PG&E acknowledges the hurdles, saying, “[M]aking it all work at an affordable cost is a major challenge,” but one that “Solaren says it can solve.”
As it should, PG&E puts all of the responsibility on Solaren for making this work:
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.
That state RPS must be pretty daunting for the utility to brave such an experimental technology. We have a feeling that neither the utility — nor First Solar, who bought the crashed-and-burned OptiSolar — will be investing actual money in this plan.
Image courtesy of Mafic Studios.