It might sound like the start of a 1950s B movie, but US energy giant PG&E has this week thrown its considerable weight behind a US startup that plans to begin transmitting usable power from orbiting solar satellites within the next seven years.
The utility has requested approval from regulators in its home state of California for a power purchase deal that from 2016 would see PG&E agree to buy 200MW of renewable power over a 15-year period from space solar technology startup Solaren Corp.
Speaking to BusinessGreen.com, PG&E spokesman Jonathan Marshall said that while the project presented a major challenge, decades of research suggested that the proposals are technically viable.
Under the proposals, Solaren plans to use solar panels on satellites to generate energy that will then be beamed to earth using radio waves, before being converted into usable electricity.
"This is not a new concept and the technology is largely proven," he said. " The main difference from communications satellites is that [Solaren] means to do it at a higher power level, but recent experiments on Earth have shown that this can work and the energy can be readily converted."
Marshall admitted that transmitting large amounts of energy using radio waves could spark safety fears, but he added that the contract with Solaren required it to obtain all the necessary safety permits from the authorities before undertaking the project. He also noted that recent NASA research had found that the radiation from Space Solar Power systems would be much too diffused to pose any health risks.
In an interview with PG&E's Next 100 blog, Solaren chief executive Gary Spirnak said that the underlying technology for the project was "very mature". He added that the combination of the Solaren team's experience in satellite technology - Spirnak worked as a spacecraft project engineer in the US Air Force and most of the 10-strong project team have worked for NASA or the US defense industry - combined with the fact no new launch technology will be required meant that he was confident the company could begin delivering renewable power to PG&E using the technology by 2016.
The biggest challenge for the technology will be making it commercially viable, Marshall said, and reports claim that Solaren is seeking several billion dollars in funding for the project.
PG&E has not provided any funding itself and will only pay for energy that is delivered, but Marshall said that the fact Solaren has a customer lined up for the power it generates should strengthen its pitch to investors.
He added that should the technology prove economically viable, it has the potential to revolutionise the global energy industry.
Solar satellites can generate power almost continuously, ensuring that unlike solar panels on the ground they can provide a base power load. In addition, space solar power is eight to 10 times greater than that which reaches the Earth, while a recent study from the US Department of Defense National Space Security Office estimated that "a single kilometre-wide band of geosynchronous earth orbit experiences enough solar flux in one year (approximately 212 terawatt-years) to nearly equal the amount of energy contained within all known recoverable conventional oil reserves on Earth today (approximately 250TW-yrs)".
Moreover, there is limited land cost associated with solar space projects and utilities could conceivably locate transmission sites right next to grid connections, making it easier and cheaper to feed the power straight into the grid.
"If it works, this could be scaled up enormously," observed Marshall, "and not just for California, but for the entire planet."
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