Is the future of solar energy in space?

Pacific Gas & Electric seems to think at least some future solar energy is in space. And is going directly to the source, or darned close to it, to buy 200 megawatts of electricity, about enough power for 150,000 houses, beamed directly from space-based solar panels.

PG&E is currently seeking state approval to buy the space power over a 15 year period from Solaren, a company that says it plans to generate the power using solar panels in earth orbit, then convert it to radio frequency energy for transmission to a receiving station in Fresno County. From there, the energy will be converted to electricity and fed into PG&E's power grid.

One might wonder why go such a challenging route to generate electricity?  According to the PG&E Web site, the solar energy available in space is eight-to-ten times greater than on earth. There's no atmospheric or cloud interference, no loss of sun at night, and no seasons. That means space solar can be what the utility calls a baseload resource, not an intermittent source of power.

In addition, real estate in space is still free (if hard to reach). Solaren needs to acquire land only for an energy receiving station. It can locate the station near existing transmission lines, greatly reducing delays that face some renewable power projects sited far from existing facilities, PG&E said.

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, PG&E said. 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, the utility stated.  

Such a plan has been accepted by scientists for years, according to The Christian Science Monitor.   A 2007 Pentagon study concluded that satellite-solar power was feasible, yet significantly more expensive than current energy sources. But PG&E and partner Solaren, a California start-up, claim that their costs will be comparable to rates for other lines of renewable power. The companies did not give specific pricing details.

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