Former oilman T. Boone Pickens no longer talks much about fossil fuels. Having produced more than three trillion cubic feet of gas and 150 million barrels of oil from 1964 to 1996, he has turned his attention to America’s “addiction to foreign oil.” His Pickens Plan calls for U.S. energy independence in ten short years – primarily from wind, natural gas, and a land-based array of solar panels.
Along comes San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric to radically stir up this mix of renewable technologies. The company proposes to build power plants using solar panels in Earth orbit and convert the generated electricity to radio-frequency transmissions to beam down to a receiving station in Fresno, California.
PG&E announced recently that it will purchase 250 megawatts of electricity from Solaren Corporation – an 8-year-old startup with 10 employees based in Manhattan Beach, California – beginning in 2016. Solaren’s staffing plans call for 100 to 125 people over the next 12 months to deliver the technology.
The project would be the first real-world application of space solar power, a technology that dates back to a 1968 patent by Peter Glaser – but has origins in Raytheon’s attempts to power helicopters with radio waves as far back as 1962.
Solaren’s director of energy services, Cal Boerman, spoke with h+ magazine about the pilot space-based PG&E solar power plant. “The pilot plant should be cost competitive with other renewable energy sources like wind and natural gas,” says Boerman. If all goes well, he anticipates there will be additional plants in space by 2020, “scaling up to the one to two gigawatt range and competitive with nuclear and coal.”
That’s just about enough to provide the 8772 gigawatt hours that currently power an estimated 35 million TVs in California annually.
The space-based solar power plant will use off-the-shelf components like solid state amplifiers (used to boost the strength of transmit signals), but will require the design and construction of lighter, larger, and highly efficient mirror arrays, photoelectric cells, and other components. The package – resembling a communications satellite – would be launched into space by a conventional Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV).
Once in orbit, the power plant will be optimized to get the beam to the ground 24 hours a day, seven days a week, during rain or shine. "We looked for a ground site with a growing load center that needs more power,” says Boerman about the choice of Fresno. “We didn’t want to locate it too close to a major metro area." After it’s on the ground, the power will be distributed through the conventional power transmission grid.
So is there a risk of frying a city with beams from space if something goes wrong, as in Will Wright’s computer game SimCity? Not so, says Boerman. “The beams will break apart and be dispersed over a large area… They will simply disappear.”
Solaren is responsible for getting the necessary launch certifications, land use, FCC, OSHA and environmental permits from federal, state, and local agencies. “This is the first of a kind,” says Boerman, “but it’s a lot like a telecommunications satellite with the rules and regulations that apply at this point.”
Boerman points out that there won’t be any unsightly power lines within view of State and National Parks, or the need “to pave over Southwestern desert landscapes with miles and miles of solar arrays.”
The reaction to PG&E’s announcement is a mix of excitement coupled with skepticism over Solaren’s ability to deliver product in such a short timeframe. Since sunlight is free, off-the-grid enthusiasts and critics of centralized power distribution are likely to be unhappy. But it’s hard to argue against clean, renewable energy that can be generated at the scale of a nuclear or coal-fired power plant and distributed to major urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s a game changer that even T. Boone Pickens can appreciate.
h+ interviewed Howard Bloom about Space-based Solar power as an energy game changer in issue #2. Check out the issue, focusing on radical tech solutions to world crises here