California utility PG&E has signed a deal for the world’s first space-based solar power plant, to be built by a secretive Southern California startup staffed by veterans of the U.S. Air Force, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
In papers filed Friday with the California Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco-based PG&E asked for approval of a 15-year, 200-megawatt contract with Solaren, a Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based company that plans to put satellites in geosynchronous orbit by 2016 to collect solar energy. The sunlight would then be transmitted to a ground station in Fresno, Calif., in the form of radio frequency waves and converted into electricity to be distributed into the power grid. Since the sun shines 24/7 in space, a Solaren solar farm could theoretically supply “baseload” green electricity to coal-dependent regions without access to abundant sources of renewable energy.
While PG&E won’t spend any money until Solaren beams down electricity, it’s uncertain whether regulators will be willing to count a contract for such unproven, bleeding-edge technology toward the utility’s state-mandated obligation to obtain 20% of its power from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020. After all, the utilities commission last year rejected PG&E’s contract with a wave energy firm on the grounds that the technology was too early stage. PG&E’s discussion of the Solaren project’s viability was filed under a request for confidentiality.
“Solaren is using an innovative space-based solar technology, which, if successful, would represent a break-through in the renewable power industry,” Brian Cherry, PG&E’s vice present of regulatory relations, wrote in the utility’s 24-page application. “While emerging technologies like space solar face considerable hurdles under a traditional viability analysis, PG&E believes that potential, significant benefits to its customers from a successful space solar installation outweigh the challenges associated with a new and unproven technology.”
Space-based solar has long been a dream and numerous studies have been conducted on its potential viability. In the documents filed with the utilities commission, PG&E (PCG) asserted that the biggest technological obstacle is building satellites that can collect megawatts’ worth of sunlight rather than transmitting the energy miles to a ground station.
“The engineering challenge of building a Space Solar Power Plant is not the energy conversion process itself, but the need to engineer and build MW-class SSP satellites, which are much larger than current kW-class communications satellites,” Cherry wrote. “Solaren’s patented SSP Plant design employs the SSP concept described above to deliver renewable electricity to PG&E.”
Solaren’s website offers a single page that contains no information on the company other than the slogan, “Energy for Tomorrow with Technology of Today.”
In its filing, PG&E said that, “Solaren was founded in 2001 to develop, engineer, test, construct, and operate space solar generating stations. Solaren has informed PG&E that its team is comprised of experienced satellite engineers and space scientists with 20 to 45 years of experience in the leading edge space industry and come from various aerospace organizations that include the U.S. Air Force, Hughes Aircraft Company, Boeing (BA), and Lockheed Martin (LMT).
Not all the hurdles to space-based solar are likely to be technological. While there are no desert tortoises in space or other protected wildlife that live on earth-bound sites for big solar power plants, any orbiting solar farm will have to pass muster with a long list of state, federal and international government agencies. Among them, the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA and the United Nations, according to PG&E.