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!
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.
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.