Alternative Energy

Alternative Energy

Alternative energy news, and information about renewable energy technologies.

May 23

Solaren Corp. to Launch Solar Panels into Orbit

Posted in Energy Industry | Energy Inventions | Solar Power

Space Solar Power We keep hearing about harnessing the solar power from space. Some call it tall claims and some dismiss it as too costly an affair or pie in the sky. But it seems that in near future harvesting solar energy from space is becoming a reality. Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) from San Francisco is in the energy sector for decades. They have produced power from atomic energy, natural gas and water. Now PG&E has gone ahead and collaborated with Manhattan Beach start-up called Solaren Corporation. But what put this deal apart from others? Actually Solaren Corporation aims to launch a series of giant solar collectors into orbit 23,000 miles above Fresno. They will beam the energy to earth in the form of radio waves. Now PG&E has finalized a contract with Solaren to buy the power on one condition if they can make the technology work.

Gary Spirnak , who is Solaren’s chief executive, shared his thoughts, “There is enormous potential for energy security, economic development, improved environmental stewardship, advancement of general space faring and overall national security for those nations who construct and possess a space-based solar power capability.”

Why should alternative energy people look up to space for generation of power? The first point that goes in favor for solar power from space is it’s a good renewable energy source and always available. That means 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 366 days a year. The sunlight is independent of the earth’s movement and shadow of the moon. We know that solar energy is clean as there are zero carbon emissions. Solaren executives claim that by 2016 they can make the technology operational to harness energy from space. Gary Spirnak commented, “If our numbers are anywhere near where we think they will be, we will be able to provide power at a cost that’s comparable with anything on Earth, that is much cleaner and all from space.” Solaren has an ambitious plan to produce enough electricity for 150,000 homes across much of Northern and Central California. The California Public Utilities Commission is evaluating Solaren’s agreement with PG&E.

How will they achieve such a feat? They will be using four or five rocket launches to install enough solar collectors into a stationary orbit. They are hopeful that it will generate 200 megawatts of power. This will be approximately half the output of a modern fossil fuel plant. They will convert the solar energy into radio waves. These radio waves will be received by a station in Fresno. There it will distributed to end users conventionally using wires and poles.

Spirnak is aware of the fact that nothing of this size has been done, but the basic technology is sound. Our commercial communications satellites have been powered by solar energy for more than four decades. The satellites are already utilizing the solar power.

No one has attempted with larger scale experimental radio transmissions. Jonathan Marshal who is PG&E spokesman acknowledges, “The challenge is putting enough hardware up in space and doing it economically.”

Solaren and PG&E are assuring the buyers of power that they won’t have to pay the price of Solaren’s costs until the company starts streaming power into their homes and businesses. PG&E isn’t investing in the project up front, agreeing only to buy power once it’s flowing, quite common in the utility business.

Frederick H. Pickel, who is an energy consultant and engineering economist in Los Angeles, elaborates on this project, “If this works, it changes the whole game. If they manage to reduce the cost sufficiently for space-based solar generation, the electric game changes, the natural gas game changes and, perhaps, even the oil game changes.”

  • Michael from Solar Energy at Home

    Very interesting project. Seems like a smart move by PG&E since they put most of the risk to Solaren.

  • Brendan

    hmm, sounds interesting. however, is there a posibility of malfunctions though? For example, what would be the outcome if a plane flew through the beam?

  • Tim

    Does sound a bit pie in the sky… Seems like there would be some very considerable problems to deal with transferring the power to the ground such as limitations on geostationary orbital satellites being the big one, and wouldn’t high powered radio transmissions cause a lot of interference with aircraft and other communications as Brendan mentioned? Also the power/cost ratio and practicality issue. I would like to see more details about their plan. The website for Solaren is mum on any specifics.

  • Roy Long

    It’s worth the try. Let’s see if it works. If it does, Solaren would be a good inestment.

  • Michael

    Talk about doublethink! They want us to believe that burning fossil fuels is causing global warming so we switch to solar, wind, geothermal, etc. People’s perception of capturing solar energy for electricity production is squeaky clean. So how could solar panels in space be any different? Well I’ll tell you.

    Solar energy is being diverted to the earth that would normally pass it by.

    This idea certainly would cause man made global warming since the earth would be receiving more solar energy than it would naturally. It doesn’t matter that it’s being converted to radio waves for transmission. Energy is energy. It cannot be created or destroyed. Once that extra energy is here on earth, it’s up to the earth to rid itself of it. There’s no debating that this idea would cause man made global warming.

    There are already sufficient amounts of solar energy hitting the earth’s surface that we can harness. What we need to work on is better energy storage. There exists today upper and lower reservoirs where water is pumped up when demand is low, and allowed to flow down to produce electricity when the demand is high.

    We need smaller residential type systems so that the stored energy is close to the consumer, reducing the need for transmission lines over long distances. I don’t like the idea of conventional batteries because you have to dispose of them when they die. A system of electrolyzing water, storage and fuel cell would be more desirable.

    I really hope this idea gets shut down before any large amounts of money are wasted on it.

  • Daniel Baldacchino

    Didn’t quite get how this can generate power ALL of the time and transmit to the SAME station – the latter implies it is geostationary but this means the power plant would have to rotate with the earth, thus exposed to more or less 12 hours of sunlight a day… have I got it wrong?

  • Chris

    GEO orbit is 22,236 miles above the earth. This distance is slightly under three earth diameters. The diameter of the sun is over 100 times the diameter of the Earth. A good image is a basketball (sun), a small marble (earth), and a tiny nearly invisible dot. The marble does shield the dot when the dot is less than two marble diameters away from the marble, but the dot starts to catch photons (color of objects) at approx 3 diameters when the marble is directly between the dot and the basketball.

  • steven

    This could be interesting, but i have to question the environmental impact of the radio waves solaren plans to send to earth and what sort of disruption it will be to fish, whales, man and other species. I am trying to obtain their EEIDS expected environmental impact documents/statements

  • ElV


    “what would be the outcome if a plane flew through the beam?”
    Not too much, from the old (1970s) figures the beam (at aircraft altitudes and ground) was less intense than military grade radar at 5 or 6 miles. So, buzz on the radios, planes’ radar a little wonky. If a plane can take lightning storms a few minutes in the beam probably not too bad.

    “… interference with aircraft and other communications…?”
    While in the beam area there would likely be some interference, but the beam / receiver (once again working off the 1970s an my memory) had an area less than a square mile. There are lots of no fly zones (some military bases, Washington DC, etc.) just mark it on the maps. Outside the beam, probably not a problem.

    Reply to Michael’s various comments:
    ” There’s no debating that this idea would cause man made global warming.” I’ll debate you: The major problem with humanity’s energy impact on the environment is not our waste energy (heat), but the toxins and gases released to generate that power. Compared to many existing large scale power generating (coal, nuke, oil) this produces no toxins and far less environmental impact in general. If coal alone was replaced the reduction in coal smoke (CO CO2) would, almost surely, REDUCE global warming.

    The reservoirs you speak of are only marginally efficient on a large scale… Those pumps use power and put out waste heat, a small home system would almost surely use more power to store it this way than could be saved.

    “electrolyzing water” is such a massively inefficient way to store power that the only way it makes much sense is if your electricity source is so cheap you don’t care. Unless we utilize some currently non existent power source (got a Mr. Fusion anyone?) it is not very useful. While I agree that a better energy storage system is what we need, until somebody starts selling Shipstones (fictional super battery) we need to use the technology available.

    Daniel Baldacchino’s comment and Chris’s reply:
    The other way to look at it is that the Earth casts a pretty small shadow that far out.

    steven’s “environmental impact”:
    This I suspect will be the PR problem that kills this (even if they get funding).

    From a practical viewpoint the environmental impact will probably be pretty small i.e. if a SPS (Solar Power Satellite) produces the environmental impact of half a coal plant and replaces 10 of them = good thing. Compared to many existing large scale power generating (coal, nuke, oil) this produces no toxins and far less environmental impact.

    On the “what sort of disruption it will be to fish, whales, man and other species.” problem:
    The operators have vested interests on keeping the “beam” focused on the receiver, any spread is power that they can’t sell. Any power the receiver lets through to under the receiver is power that they can’t sell. The leakage through the (1970s again) receiver was low enough that the illustrations had farmers raising crops under them. You (bet you a dollar) have relied on this concept to keep you safe in your own home, the microwave oven is thousands of times more intense but the grid in the door window keeps (99.99+%) all the microwaves nicely off of you.

    If the beam wandered off target and didn’t get turned off it would still not be much of a danger. People exposed to more intense microwaves than we are talking about report it as “warm”. Unless you kept it on a wrong spot for a long period (days?) I doubt one would notice without instruments. After many days it might raise the temp a degree or so.

    If you put the receiver on the ocean (unlikely but could happen) “fish, whales,” might have a problem with it, the only one I can think of is if some of them use some unknown “compass” that radio waves might mess with. If the beam wandered off onto the ocean; it would be absorbed in the top inch, once again warming things mildly.

    “other species.”:
    Birds might be a problem, unlikely to be harmed if they fly through, but hard to say if they nest on top of the receiver for long periods. It would feel warm, so it might attract them. Under receiver probably not a problem.

    Insects might be a problem too. Under receiver, once again, probably not a problem. But on top? I don’t see why they would be attracted to it (no food) but if they stayed there for years it might be bad for them.

    BUT, compared to smoke from a smoky power plant or the fishkill from a hydroelectric dam I think this is pretty minor stuff environmental wise.

    It makes sense environmentally, economically, and socially to me. If that is enough to have it come about… probably not.

  • Samantha Atkins

    Nasa did not propose to build but a much smaller demo by 2016 and contingent on a lot of supporting tech such as RLV, good LEO to GEO transport, space robotics, etc. The idea that a startup with only a few million is going to produce more in that same time frame is completely ridiculous. The ground work required has not been done anywhere yet. I wish this was not so and success was likely because I very much want SBSP. But it will not happen this way.

  • ElV

    Oh, I suspect that “completely ridiculous” might be slight overkill. “spectacularly unlikely” seems about right. 🙂

    Unfortunately, I suspect both will produce the same thing: Medium grade computer graphics, piles of paper, enough hardware to fit in a truck (bigger NASA truck). No SBSP.

    My (unrealistic) hope is that some billionaire is secretly planning on being the king of space and even as we speak is doing great things. Another hope is the Japanese. Otherwise, it is just depressing.

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