PG&E hopes to capture solar power from space by 2016

A burgeoning green consciousness has companies and utilities looking for clean, renewable energy supplies

California utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co is looking to outer space to find a new source of solar power to generate cheaper and cleaner electricity.

PG&E Monday announced that it is seeking approval from state regulators to sign an agreement to purchase power from Solaren Corp., a Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based company that promises to generate energy using solar panels that will be launched into Earth's orbit. Eight-year-old Solaren has contracted with the utility to deliver 200 megawatts of clean, renewable power over a 15-year period, according to PG&E.

Gary Spirnak, CEO of Solaren, said in a blog post that the company expects to begin generating space-based solar power for PG&E by 2016.

"Why would anyone choose so challenging a locale to generate electricity? For one, the solar energy available in space is eight to ten times greater than on earth," wrote PG&E in a company blog.

"There's no atmospheric or cloud interference, no loss of sun at night, and no seasons. That means space solar can be a baseload resource, not an intermittent source of power."

Solar power, if not actually space-based solar power, has been the focus of much research in recent years.

The push to bypass the use of expensive, nonrenewable energy from foreign sources has spurred research into solar-powered cars that can run all day long and studies of technology that would turn windows in large buildings into solar panels.

PG&E reported that its plan is to convert the power collected in the space-based solar panels into radio frequency energy that will then be transmitted to a receiving station in California. At that point, the energy will be converted into electricity and moved into the San Francisco-based utility's power grid.

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., said he's eager to see how this plan moves ahead at a time when a sagging economy means research dollars are in short supply but when a burgeoning green consciousness has companies and utilities looking for clean, renewable energy supplies.

"The hard part is getting that power back to Earth in a workable way," he said. "This is an effort that's worth some research dollars. Right now it's in the realm of science fiction, but tomorrow it could be our best hope for clean, constant, energy."

PG&E noted in the blog that the challenge with space-based solar power is in making it work at an affordable price. Solaren's team, the utility noted, includes satellite engineers and scientists with experience working for the U.S. Air Force and Hughes Aircraft Co. Spirnak worked as a spacecraft project engineer in the Air Force and as director of advanced digital applications at Boeing Satellite Systems.

"Collecting solar energy in space and transmitting it to Earth offers a significant untapped energy resource," said Spirnak.

"This will be the world's first [space solar power] plant. While a system of this scale and exact configuration has not been built, the underlying technology is very mature and is based on communications satellite technology."

PG&E noted that NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy began studying the possibility of solar power satellites in the 1970s and then again during the 1990s.

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