Solar Plant in Space Gets Go-Ahead
by Todd Wood
California regulators on Thursday went where no regulators have gone before — approving a utility contract for the nation’sfirst space-based solar power plant.
The 200-megawatt orbiting solar farm would convert solar energy collected in space into radio frequency waves, which would be beamed to a ground station near Fresno, Calif. The radio waves would then be transformed back into electricity and fed into the power grid.
“At the conceptual level, the advantages of space-based systems are significant,” said Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, during a hearing on Thursday. “This technology would offer around-the-clock access to clean renewable energy, and while there’s no doubt this project has many hurdles to overcome, both regulatory and technological, it’s hard to argue with the audacity of the project.”
A Southern California start-up called Solaren will loft components for the solar power plant into orbit and sell the electricity it generates to Pacific Gas and Electric, the major utility in Northern California, under a 15-year contract. The project is supposed to be turned on in 2016.
Solaren, founded by veterans of Hughes Aircraft, Boeing and Lockheed, plans to deploy a free-floating inflatable Mylar mirror one kilometer (0.62 miles) in diameter. This will collect and concentrate sunlight on a smaller mirror, that in turn will focus the rays on photovoltaic modules, according to the company’s patent.
In an interview with Grist in April, Gary Spirnak, Solaren’s chief executive, said that the vital part of making a space-based solar farm economically viable was to take the weight out of the system to reduce the number of rocket launches.
Still, Mr. Spirnak, who previously ran space shuttle flights for the United States Air Force, acknowledged that putting a solar power plant in space would cost a few billion dollars more than a terrestrial photovoltaic farm generating the equivalent amount of electricity.
The rate that P.G.& E. agreed to pay Solaren for the electricity produced by the solar station remains confidential. Also, regulators said on Thursday that the utility could not count the project toward its renewable energy mandates unless certain milestones were met.