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Pacific Gas & Electric announced, very quietly, it seems, that they had eneterd into a 200 MW solar energy deal with Solaren Corp to begin deliveries in 2016.  Not so unusual these days for a major utility to announce a renewable energy deal, except for one little thing...

Solaren plans on putting their solar panels in space!

Space Solar

Not on a big empty space on the ground, but on the big empty space in space. Solaren plans on placing the panels into earth orbit, convert it to radio waves and transmit it to a collector station in Fresno, CA where it will be converted to electricity and fed into the grid.

SOLAR PANELS IN SPACE...Space....space...space...

Last Friday, with abosltulely no fanfare, PG&E filed with the California Public Utilities Commission an Advice Letter asking for approval of this contract at publicly unspecified rates (ther rates are made available to various oversight organizations, but are kept publicly confidential for competitive reasons, however they do mention it iwll be more that a state guideline (but it is not a ceiling)).  The advice letter states the the project will produce 1,700 GWh of energy for up to 15 years, making it a baseload solar resource. Not to mention that it will require limited tranmission enhancements. PG&E providess some caution in the advice letter, this innovative and potentially breakthrough energy project is untested and in many ways undeveloped.  Nonetheless, PG&E has done it's internal vetting of the project and thinks the potential benfits outweigh the challenges.

It wasn't until Monday the 13th that a more public "announcement" was made, when at the Next100 website, a PG&E sponsored website, did a blog entry on the project. In the blog they mention that the DOE and NASA have considered spoace-based energy production sine the 70's.  The blog cites a 1997 study by John C. Mankins at NASA:

Based on the recently-completed "fresh look" study, space solar power concepts may be ready to reenter the discussion. Certainly, solar power satellites should no longer be envisioned as requiring unimaginably large initial investments in fixed infrastructure before the emplacement of productive power plants can begin. Moreover, space solar power systems appear to possess many significant environmental advantages when compared to alternative approaches to meeting increasing terrestrial demands for energy - including requiring considerably less land area than terrestrially-based solar power systems.

The economic viability of such systems depends, of course, on many factors and the successful development of various new technologies - not least of which is the availability of exceptionally low cost access to space. However, the same can be said of many other advanced power technologies options. Space solar power may well emerge as a serious candidate among the options for meeting the energy demands of the 21st century.

And the blog also points to a 2007 study by the Department of Defense National Security Space Office which said there was "enormous potential for energy security, economic development, improved environmental stewardship...and overall national security for those nations who construct and possess SBSP (Space Based Solar Production) capability."

Solaren will try to leverage this energy contract and various public agencies for funding, they will be responsioble for licensing and permitting needed and there is still a lot that needs to be discussed and debated about this highly innovative project.

This could be science fiction or a reality that is still decades away but...but if it works it could provide a new piece to the puzzle of solving the problems of our energy future.

Originally posted to Gangster Octopus on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:23 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

    •  Sorry to sound like a skeptic... (5+ / 0-)

      but I have a few observations:

      1. Will you be able to get back even the energy of boosting this into orbit?
      1. Why not spend the money on a solar farm out in the desert, of which California has a LOT?  Much easier to service there, too.  (And we're retiring our space truck.)
      1. Only 15 years?
      1. LEO has a lot of garbage in it.  But the power you get transmitted drops by the square of the distance.  How high are these satellites going to be?  Inside or Outside of the Van Allen Belts?  If you go LEO, that will require a number of satellites, and then you still don't have power at night.  (And who are they going to sell the power to with the majority of the satellites that are not overhead?)
      1. GEOSYNC has limited spaces in it, too.  This is expensive space, and 20,000 miles away.  Sure, you get power all day and night, but you're 50x farther away so the power will be 2,500x less.

      There are a lot of technical problems with this approach.

      Don't bet the farm on it.

      Happy little moron, Lucky little man.
      I wish I was a moron, MY GOD, Perhaps I am!
      -Spike Milligan

      by polecat on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:49:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  And what happens if a piece of space junk (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        oldjohnbrown, Larsstephens

        or a micrometeor hits the satellite and knocks it out of alignment?

        And how much cancer is this going to cause?

        •  You make the orbiting system modular... (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          polecat, Larsstephens, Vladislaw

          Yes, things will break in space, and you won't be able to go fix them (not in any cost-effective way, anyway). For a guaranteed 200MW system, you'll need to orbit 300-400MW worth of capacity. When part of it breaks, you just disable it.

          The "out of alignment" isn't a big problem, you have to actively (and independently) aim the PV array and the transmit array all the time anyway. The usual gyroscopic systems, just like ISS and Hubble.

          By "cancer", you're just talking about the (presumably) microwave transmission system? The power density of the beam isn't all that high, it's not clear you'd even bother restricting the airspace above it.  But it's 10 square miles of rectenna, fenced off out in the desert somewhere, there's no particular reason to be worried about ground-based health effects, You would want the beam-tracking and safety cut-off software to be open-sourced, for reliability and security. :-)

          -Jay-

      •  power as square of distance -- N/A (4+ / 0-)

        No, that's not right. Focused microwave transmissions are much tighter. You're talking about the loss of energy from point sources, like a lightbulb. They'd be able to focus the energy on to a relatively small area, even from GEO.

        The advantage over terrestrial solar power is that you can run these 24/7, without worrying about night, or weather.

        The disadvantage, as you note, is you have to get the panels and the transmitters into GEO. (Not LEO.)

        car wreck : car insurance :: climate wreck : climate insurance

        by HarlanNY on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:55:38 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Also, I believe what I've read about space solar (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Larsstephens

          suggests that sunlight generates much more usable energy when it's not being filtered through an atmosphere.

          It's important to think of space solar not as being in competition with earthbound solar but as the addition of a new item on the menu of alternatives to fossil fuels.

          I imagine launch costs, matters of scale, and the fact that this will be the first of its kind will all make this particular array less than profitable.

          However, this does not mean it should not be done, because essentially we have to begin trying this on a small scale in order to move to much more ambitious and largescale projects that could truly be transformative.

          This is great news.

          "It's like we weren't made for this world, But I wouldn't really want to meet someone who was." --Of Montreal

          by andydoubtless on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 01:53:47 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Don't bet the farm on it. (7+ / 0-)

        (a) Agreed; but also

        (b) Its still pretty cool.

        Better this than having PG&E sponsor some golf tournament.

        "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

        by Bill White on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 01:04:54 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, it smells a little fishy... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        polecat, Larsstephens

        1. Yes, you can make back the energy spent, but with today's launch vehicles, there's no way you can make back the dollars spent at current market electrical power rates. Heavy lift to earth orbit (even LEO, low earth orbit, let alone GEO, geosynchronous earth orbit) is fiendishly expensive. You're talking about a PV array totalling somewhere around 1 square kilometer in size, and the associated transmit antenna (for GEO) about the same size. Humoungous.
        2. You want to put it in orbit, because it's all about base load, baby. People have become used to getting electricity when it's dark, or cloudy, not just when it's sunny. Backing energy store to make terrestrial solar power capable of providing base load don't exist (just like the cheap lift vehicles for your #1 don't exist, but hey).
        3. 15 years isn't an unreasonable estimate for how long you'd be able to keep a (say) 300MW orbiting power system running at at leat 75% capacity. Or maybe they're saying they want to be able to re-negotiate the contract in 15 years.
        4. LEO/MEO versus GEO is a big question. Horrendously more expensive to get to GEO, but you need a lot more satellites to operate in LEO, and even then you probably can't get to 24-hour baseload, as you point out. GEO is the usual paper design. Inverse-square dropoff doesn't happen here, these need to be huge antennas; huge in orbit to focus the beam, and huger on the ground to catch (almost) all of it.
        5. Yes, it's very expensive orbital slot space, but power loss isn't the problem, being able to launch a big-enough antenna to avoid the power loss is the problem. :-)

  •  Uh-oh...if I remember Sim City 2000 correctly (12+ / 0-)

    The space solar power plants are great, except every once in a while the transmission from space misfires and toasts a city block or two.

    And I live in Fresno.

    •  Sounds like it will be fun to watch! nt (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Larsstephens

      Happy little moron, Lucky little man.
      I wish I was a moron, MY GOD, Perhaps I am!
      -Spike Milligan

      by polecat on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:50:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  you beat me to it (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Larsstephens

      I was just recalling my Sim City experience with this technology.  Personally, I preferred coal-fired plants placed at the edge of the screen, so the fumes would drift off-screen into the settlements over yander.

      "Could care less" = you care about it with room to spare. "Couldn't care less" = you don't care about it at all. Don't misuse: "begs the question."

      by dickinabox on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 01:03:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Not all that realistic... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Larsstephens

      Power drifts a significant distance off target and the system shuts down until it reacquires.

      15 to 6. Pulled ahead as soon as the gate opened and never looked back....

      by BobTrips on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 01:04:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  "Robocop" used it in the 80's (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      oldjohnbrown, Larsstephens

      as part of a "news story" backdrop.  The anchor talks about the satellite destroying San Clemente "home of former President Richard Nixon.  A sad day, a day of mourning for a nation."  and then they cut to the cute blonde with the human interest story.  

      "Repent, Harlequin!" said the TickTock Man. "Up Yours!" said the Harlequin to the TickTock Man. -- Harlan Ellison

      by Jbearlaw on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 01:13:01 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Not Science Fiction... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    oldjohnbrown

    to "Could be science fiction."

    Which is it?

    •  The Japanese have been working on this... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      HeyMikey, Larsstephens

      for some time.  They  seem to think it might be realistic.

      Lots of things we pursue without being sure that they will pan out.  But the 24/365 part of this system makes it worth a close look.

      As thin film solar gets better and better the idea becomes more feasible. In space we don't need heavy duty racking systems like back on Earth.  That really cuts down on the amount of mass to be lifted.

      That's not to say that it's guaranteed...

      --

      (Could we park a great big patch of thin film over the poles on a seasonal basis and help them cool down a little?)

      15 to 6. Pulled ahead as soon as the gate opened and never looked back....

      by BobTrips on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 01:09:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Let's invest in this kind of stuff (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    buckhorn okie, swampus, Larsstephens

    instead of blowing millions each week in Iraq and Afghanistan to protect the profits of our oilmen.

  •  best of all, when flocks of birds flew above the (9+ / 0-)

    receptor, they automatically turn into fried chicken.

    What we call god is merely a living creature with superior technology & understanding. If their fragile egos demand prayer, they lose that superiority.

    by agnostic on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:31:29 PM PDT

  •  Wow! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    HeyMikey, Larsstephens

    I'm curious how all that electricity gets to earth as radio waves, and look out anything that might get between said transmission, but otherwise I say lets toss some money at it.

    F-Tha NSA comin straight from the underground. Record this bitches!

    by Adept2u on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:33:43 PM PDT

  •  Solar power from space (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Arken, Larsstephens

    has not been science fiction for about 4.5 billion years. Trying to use it in Rube Goldberg fashion, however, is...

    Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. -- Philip K. Dick

    by RandomGuyFromGermany on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:34:32 PM PDT

    •  this is an old idea (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Mikey, polecat, Larsstephens

      convert solar power in space to microwaves and beam them to a receptor on earth.  The idea is as old as I am, and I was born in the 60s.  There's nothing Rube Goldberg about it.

      "My friend, if you think we're going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken." - Donald Rumsfeld

      by RickD on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:40:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Suggesting an awkwardly complicated (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Arken, Larsstephens, sullivanst

        solution to an already solved problem qualifies for a Rube Goldberg moniker in my book. We hardly can keep the ISS going, yet people dream of a device many times bigger in a geo-stationary orbit.

        Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. -- Philip K. Dick

        by RandomGuyFromGermany on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:45:29 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  The difficulty with ISS isn't technical (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Larsstephens

          its political.  And the fact that it'll be around until 2020 says to me its "hardly keeping ISS going"

        •  Explain to me (2+ / 0-)

          what part of using PEV for base load electrical power is "solved", please.

          That's what the guys in question (Solaren) are trying to do, base load electrical power (200MW worth), replacing coal and nuclear.

          Now they won't be able to do it because it's currently too expensive to lift that much mass to orbit, and there isn't any technology in sight to change that in the next 5 years.

          Terrestrial PEV won't be able to do it because it gets dark at night, cloudy 70+ days/year even in sunny climates,  the sun angle sucks for 1/4 the year (in North America), and the energy storage systems with the capability of bridging those factors don't exist (again, in the next 5 years).

          If you've got any of those solved, there are a lot of folks that would willing to spend a lot of money for you to tell them about it. Unless by "solved" you mean "just reduce our power consumption levels to 20% of today". That would be awesome, but most westerners would not call that "solved".

          Personally, I think terrestrial solar will get there first, but it won't be PEV. But nobody has it "solved" today.

          -Jay-

          •  Didn't think about "base load solar power" (0+ / 0-)

            so you have a point there.

            So let me explain my point, too: We're talking about a piece of technology that covers base load electrical needs but suffers from the risk of a single point of failure in an un-serviceable location. Once that thing fails, it cuts you off your base power supply for a long, long time.

            So we'd need to factor in some redundancy: In the extreme there wouldn't be one gigantic panel but many, many 'satellites' with their own microwave transmitter. I have, however, no idea whether that would work technically. But it would create new risks, too

            Which brings me to my point: While we sure haven't solved base load solar power, we could use water currents and ocean waves for base load electrical power. At least that stuff is known technology and it's serviceable.

            Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. -- Philip K. Dick

            by RandomGuyFromGermany on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 10:21:13 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  No nothing Rube Golburg, just (5+ / 0-)

        rocket science. There is a reason the L5 Society did not achieve its goals, cost per pound to orbit. That cost has not come down significantly.

        Getting Dems together and keeping them that way is like trying to herd cats, hopped up on crank, through LA, during an earthquake, in the rain. -6.25, -6.10

        by Something the Dog Said on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:49:46 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  And most importantly, costs come down as a (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Larsstephens

          function of scale itself.

          As we build more components for space solar, they become cheaper. And at a certain point it becomes economical for more elements of production to occur outside earth's gravity well, at which point one has the economic foundations of a spacefaring civilization.

          Let me repeat that, becomes it's awesome: the economic foundations of a spacefaring civilization.

          "It's like we weren't made for this world, But I wouldn't really want to meet someone who was." --Of Montreal

          by andydoubtless on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 02:02:21 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Next100 is the official PG&E blog (6+ / 0-)

    Actually, this is very good news.

    Will space based solar power be cost competitive? I dunno, but it is worth finding out.

    "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

    by Bill White on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:36:19 PM PDT

  •  I have some immedeate concerns here (5+ / 0-)
    1. Even if the price of space access falls, what percentage of the ultimate energy generation is canceled out by the energy cost of launch? How about the environmental cost of making the PV cells? (I presume it's PV not solar thermal from the images)
    1. Aren't they concerned about space junk? That thing has a pretty big surface area.
    1. What's the transmission loss? Radio transmission over a distance of 22,000 miles is really inefficient. If I was less lazy I'd work out how much a laser beam would self-diffract over that distance... I know the smallest spot you can cast on the moon from an earth-based laser is about 2 miles wide.

    I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong. - Bertrand Russell
    -5.38, -6.41

    by sullivanst on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:37:21 PM PDT

    •  beam dispersion is related the ratio of (4+ / 0-)

      antenna size to wavelength. The transmission antenna is part of the station, many times larger than the wavelength.

      Besides that, conversion from DC to UHF/microwave is much more efficient than DC to optical/NIR lasers.  The scattering and absorption loses of UHF are also much less than light/NIR; TV transmissions work through fog, clouds, and rain while light gets badly scattered by those.

      •  If Wikipedia's accurate on this... (4+ / 0-)

        They reckon from GEO you need a circular spacecraft of 1km diameter and an elliptical ground rectenna measuring 10km East-West and 14km North-South for maximum efficiency. Yikes.

        I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong. - Bertrand Russell
        -5.38, -6.41

        by sullivanst on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:54:10 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  change in language (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Larsstephens

          The Wiki article speculates that you'd want maximum efficiency, and that maximum efficiency would be achieved at the size cited.  You've changed the language to the point were suddenly this size is needed.

          That's not entirely accurate.  Certainly the size you cite isn't "needed".  I suspect from the language at the Wiki that the part you are referring to was written by somebody trying to make the idea seem ridiculous.  Those few paragraphs read like an exercise in trying to make the idea sound as ludicrous as possible.

          A necessary question here would be: how much efficiency could be found using smaller equipment.  That is a question the Wiki is not interested in.  

          "My friend, if you think we're going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken." - Donald Rumsfeld

          by RickD on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 01:04:13 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Actually, no... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Larsstephens

            I just shifted the "for maximum efficiency" to the end of the sentence.

            The Japanese space agency (JAXA) and NASA both appear to have always assumed at least a 1km-diameter spacecraft when modeling these. Admittedly their rectenna arrays are much smaller, but the space-side part of this is really the most scary anyway - rectenna arrays aren't especially dense, the land under them can still be used for other purposes.

            I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong. - Bertrand Russell
            -5.38, -6.41

            by sullivanst on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 01:46:47 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  re space junk (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RickD, oldjohnbrown, Larsstephens

      They'd put the SSP stations in a geosynchronous orbit, where there's relatively little space junk of consequence (unlike in a low-earth orbit, where it's getting to be a significant issue...)

      car wreck : car insurance :: climate wreck : climate insurance

      by HarlanNY on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:48:26 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  As I recall (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JayBat, swampus, Larsstephens

    there were a lot of dead rabbits in front of the microwave antenna beaming communications transmissions across the Atlantic, and that was nowhere near 1,700 GWh.

    Looks like PG&E might have another way to keep those pesky Fresno customers in line...

    "You can't get something for nothing...It's time to stop being stupid." Bob Herbert

    by Orinoco on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:37:29 PM PDT

    •  power densities (6+ / 0-)

      while I'm skeptical of power from orbit using current methods, just gotta correct this.

      The space power beam intensities are not greater than the energy density of sunlight, and generally the designs use a fraction of sunlight density.  Those big microwave antennas crank out a much higher power density than sunlight.

      It's the difference between a flashlight beam and focused beam of a quartz-halogen heater.

      The power from orbit schemes can get away with lower than sunlight intensities because the conversion back to electricity is much more efficient than conversion in the best solar cells, and well above the theoretical limits of photovoltaic conversion.

    •  Couple things.... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      HeyMikey, Orinoco, Larsstephens

      Note the "h" in "GWh". That's the lifetime expected energy total, not the power. It's the power that's important.

      Second, the antenna beaming communications was the transmitter, where the power was at its most concentrated. In this application, the part on earth will be the receiver, where the power is much more diffuse - the receiver will have to be huge for this application.

      I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong. - Bertrand Russell
      -5.38, -6.41

      by sullivanst on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 01:17:11 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  In somewhat related news... (4+ / 0-)

    The ISS now has almost an acre of solar panels.

  •  It is a cool idea, but a flatly crazy one. (6+ / 0-)

    This is the money graph :

    The economic viability of such systems depends, of course, on many factors and the successful development of various new technologies - not least of which is the availability of exceptionally low cost access to space.

    For the cost of orbiting this thing they could build several ground based concentrated solar power plants. Plants that they could service on the ground and grow on the ground.

    Getting Dems together and keeping them that way is like trying to herd cats, hopped up on crank, through LA, during an earthquake, in the rain. -6.25, -6.10

    by Something the Dog Said on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 12:48:32 PM PDT

  •  I wonder about the safety of the microwaves too- (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Larsstephens

    we are being told "they are perfectly safe", but I also remember hearing that the radar from a MIG fighter would kill a rabbit at 200 yards. How is it that these admittedly very high-power microwave transmissions would be "perfectly safe"?

  •  This is actually pretty cool: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    HeyMikey, andydoubtless, Larsstephens

    Any power system is going to have drawbacks, but once you negotiate this into a GSO there is not much else to worry about. The wandering signal scenario is not difficult to safeguard against, the microwave transmission is very focused, the solar collection reaches into the 90% efficiency. To me, the only drawback would be effective marking so aircraft don't wander into the beam, and the amount of attendant avian casualties. Balance that with no long term pollution, a much smaller terrain footprint then the equivalent earth based power station would require...

    I'm all for it, and have been since I first heard about such ideas outside of SciFi, nearly 20 years ago

    "Biden's tears did more for the equality Of the sexes than Palin's presence" - Leah Renna

    by edgeways on Tue Apr 14, 2009 at 01:34:15 PM PDT

  •  Not science fiction?!?! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    andydoubtless, Larsstephens

    Doesn't anyone but me read Asimov anymore?

    This sounds like an interesting problem, regardless of whether it is economically feasible.  We stand to learn a lot, even from a failure.

  •  Interesting to know that extra terrestrial solar (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JayBat, andydoubtless, Larsstephens

    energy generation has at least some potential for being done efficiently and cost effectively. I always assumed it couldn't be done efficiently enough to make it worthwhile.

  •  article (3+ / 0-)

    http://www.cleantech.com/...

    EXCERPT

    A clear advantage of solar in space is efficiency. From space, solar energy is converted into radio frequency waves, which are then beamed to Earth. The conversion rate of the RF waves to electricity is in the area of 90 percent, he said, citing U.S. government research efforts. The conversion rate for a typical earthbound nuclear or coal-fired plant, meanwhile, is in the area of 33 percent.

    "Coal and nuclear plants are just a fancy way of boiling water," Spirnak said, also pointing to the water use inefficiency of current technologies.

    Space solar arrays are also 8-10 times more efficient than terrestrial solar arrays, added PG&E's Marshall: "Obviously the sun isn't unavailable at night."

    Solar arrays on earth are also affected by cloud cover as well as other impurities in the atmosphere that diminish the amount of sunlight that reaches the panels.

    "What makes this unusual is that power from space solar should be available around the clock and year-round," Marshall said.

    While Solaren would provide 200MW of electricity to PG&E, according to the filing with the PUC, Solaren anticipates generating a total 1,000MW from its satellite, said Spirnak.

    If solar power from space seems to have a science fiction ring to it, it's because it does.
    The concept was first proposed in 1941 by science fiction author Isaac Asimov in his book "Reason," about a space station that collects solar energy and beams it to Earth.

  •  Building a ladder (0+ / 0-)

    I'm glad to hear about this pilot project.  However, I think the intention must be to prove system viability before moving on to the issue of launch costs.

    The launch cost issue hasn't gotten much better.  The most ingenious approaches that came out of the X-Prize contest relied on smallness.  For instance, I really admired the idea of using a refueling tanker after takeoff, but that demanded a small spaceplane.

    The most extreme technologies for reducing launch costs are going to take a long time because we will have to start over from scratch.

    A. The Big Dumb Booster

    This is an American idea that will probably only be implemented in Asian shipyards.  The BDB is a gigantic tank of kerosene that's gravity-fed to a ring of simple thrusters around the bottom edge.  It's made of steel and it's about the size of a Zeppelin.

    B. Laser power

    NASA's been working on it, but it's tricky.  Inside the atmosphere, you would use a ground-based laser to heat the intake of a spaceplane.  In space, you would have to carry a tank of reaction mass to heat up.

    C. Space tethers

    I love it, and very recently a lab in Austin unveiled a machine that could weave fabric from fullerenes, the only usable material strong enough to make the cables.  You construct a series of orbital stations with relatively short cables, tethers, which lift payloads to successively higher orbits like a series of trapezes.  When the payload is winched the top of each upper tether, it is going too fast relative to its orbit and is flung to a higher orbit.

    We could do the tether stations right now, but you still need a cheap way into sub-orbit to catch the lowest one.

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