Pacific Gas and Electric the southern California utility asked California Public Utilities Commission last Friday for permission to buy 200 megawatts of electricity from Solaren’s orbiting power plant when and if it’s built, projected for 2016, a mere 7 years out.

PG&E spokesman Jonathan Marshall said, “We’re convinced it’s a very serious possibility that they can make this work. It’s staggering how much power is potentially available in space. And I say ‘potentially’ because a lot remains unknown about the cost and other details.” I dare say so, too.

Cal Boerman, Solaren’s director of energy services offers that many of the project’s details remain under wraps, and others haven’t been decided yet. For example it isn’t decided whether to use crystalline silicon solar cells or newer, thin-film cells that weigh less than silicon but aren’t as efficient. One would think in the first impression that whatever is lightest would be most cost effective, but the lifespan potential, yet to be learned, would have a major impact as well.

Gary Spirnak CEO of Solaren

Gary Spirnak CEO of Solaren

Solaren is a young company whose website is single page with an email contact. One supposes that with the news getting out that might be best until things firm up. Solaren is based in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and is seeking investors for a private stock placement to raise “billions” of dollars for its business plan, said Gary Spirnak, CEO of Solaren to Cleantech Group. Cleantech is saying that Solaren is in talks with potential investors in Europe and the United States, and hopes to finalize investment agreements by the summer of 2009.

Solaren says it has a few million dollars in startup funding covering employees with backgrounds from the aerospace business. The company says it is in talks with companies such as Lockheed-Martin and Boeing to build the solar plant and the four rockets needed to send it into orbit.

Surprisingly the next step would be the engineering and design of the solar plant that would orbit in space, catch the sun’s rays and send them down to a ground station on Earth. One would think they have a better handle on that than the reports are saying. But CEO Gary Spirnak was a spacecraft project engineer in the U.S. Air Force and worked at Boeing Satellite Systems. The core team members at Solaren appear to reportedly have 20 to 45 years of experience in aerospace.

The deal is for Solaren to deploy a solar array into space to beam an average of 850 gigawatt hours (GWh) for the first year of the term, and 1,700 GWh per year over the remaining term, according to the PG&E filing to the California PUC. PG&E says there is no risk to PG&E ratepayers for this, which calls into question the viability of the plan. Are they a committed buyer or not? A sensible investor would want to know, and see it documented.

But lets not get skeptical; it’s the first contract (of some sort or other) for power from space, something NASA has still way back on the stove if thinking about it at all. Which might be a good thing, as the price for the power going the NASA route can’t even be imagined let alone contemplated as competitive.

There have to be significant problems that Solaren is representing as solved. Harvesting the energy in space is a known technology, it’s getting back down here that matters. The Cleantech report has it that the solar energy would be converted to radio frequencies to be beamed to earth. That’s based on citing U.S. government research efforts.

But the pluses are just intriguing, no clouds, no night, efficiencies skyrocket as the whole solar spectrum is available.

Yet the coolest feature from Cleantech is the comparison to the deployment of DirecTV, the satellite TV provider. DirecTV sends TV signals down to earth on solar-powered RF waves. However, when they reach the earth, the solar energy is wasted, and all receivers pick up is the TV programming. Also, the DirectTV signals are beamed across the whole country to all its subscribers, while with the Solaren service for PG&E, the signal would be tightly focused, aimed at a receiving station in Fresno, Calif. That makes feeling better about it possible.

PG&E also points to recent research done by the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA in the 1970s that shows the viability of solar from space. Additionally, the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office gave solar from space-based solar power high marks in a 2007 report saying “There is enormous potential for energy security, economic development, improved environmental stewardship … and overall national security for those nations who construct and possess a space based solar power [facility].”

This is really putting the pressure on naysayers. PG&E willing to spend the time and resources to consider and file for contracting permission is a distinct vote of confidence that has to help the progress. Moreover it will surely get the competition going as a space based power facility would be the nirvana of a cash machine until competition drives the margins low. That will take some time.

Big news. And a big idea. 1,000MW is no small facility. But the breakthrough is answering the first, most important question as Spirnak put it, “Investors always want to know, ‘How do you know people are going to buy the power from you?'”

Answered in the affirmative. Lets just hope it can get to less than 5¢ a KWh sooner than later. Then you’d have an economic boom going.

Hat Tipped with a bow to Brian Wang for catching this quickly at the nextbigfuture site.

And a firm acknowledgment of daring and leadership to Mr. Spirnak.


9 Comments so far

  1. Anonymous on April 15, 2009 7:31 AM

    Let us not forget Space Energy:

    Their website also makes it seem more promising since they have more than a ” single page with an email contact.”

  2. Competition Grows For Orbital Solar Power | New Energy and Fuel on June 25, 2009 1:07 AM

    […] This follows Solaren’s recently signed deal for the first-ever power purchase agreement to deliver 200 megawatts of solar energy from space with Cal… […]

  3. Lizzy on August 18, 2010 8:13 AM

    Thank you very much for posting all of the great info! Looking forward to reading more.

  4. Maria on August 19, 2010 2:53 PM

    Helpful summary, saved the site in interest to see more!

  5. Carpet Extractor  on October 20, 2010 11:44 AM

    solar power is great because it is a reneweable source of energy and non-polluting too'”:

  6. Rory Culotta on May 19, 2011 2:51 AM

    I was just having a conversation over this I am glad I came across this it cleared some of the questions I had.

  7. Gabriella Boydstun on August 30, 2011 12:45 PM

    Thanks for posting. Good to see that not everyone is using RSS feeds to build their blogs 😉

  8. Jennifer Himmelwright on September 8, 2011 7:33 PM

    Great read. Thanks for the info!

  9. Kimlee on March 18, 2014 11:46 AM

    Nice to see the project take off…and a great place to be for CEO Gary Spirnak…

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