Start your satellite launchers, folks — the solar space race is on. The idea of capturing sunlight with satellite solar arrays in space and beaming electricity down to Earth has gained fresh legs in recent months, and this morning word comes from Japan that the technology has acquired some new boosters. Solar panel maker Mitsubishi Electric Corp and IHI Corp have agreed to join more than a dozen companies developing technology for a 1-gigawatt solar station in space. As Bloomberg reports, the companies expect to invest 2 trillion yen ($21 billion) over four years working on the tech, and hope to have the station generating electricity 30 years from now.
The Japanese space solar project, being led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and trade ministry, comes on the heels of announcements from startups including PowerSat, Solaren and Space Energy, which are all working on the technology. But those companies are working with considerably smaller budgets. Eight-year-old PowerSat, for example, has received commitments for some $3 million-$5 million in angel funding, with a first round of venture capital funding in the single-digit millions in the pipeline.
The problem with smaller budgets is that this experimental technology is notoriously expensive. Back in 2007, the U.S. government’s National Security Space Office published a plan to launch a proof-of-concept design within a decade, including an appendix titled “10 Years — 10 Megawatts — $10 billion.”
So part of the challenge for Mitsubishi and its new partners, who are eying an initial launch in 2015 and a “fully operational” station in the 2030s, will be cutting costs. According to Hiroshi Yoshida, CEO of space and defense-policy consulting firm Excalibur KK, quoted in the Bloomberg article, the expense of transporting solar panels more than 22,000 miles above Earth will have to be slashed to “a hundredth of current estimates” in order for the technology to stand a chance at commercial viability.
Is it a moon shot? Probably, at least for the time being. But as California utility PG&E explained when it began seeking approval from state regulators for a 200 MW power purchase agreement with Solaren earlier this year, if a company can make space solar work at an affordable cost and with all the necessary safety standards and permits, “the world of clean energy will never be the same.”
Graphic credit: 10MW-class demonstration solar-power satellite from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science