Gallery: PG&E Announces Solar Power From Space By 2016


Microwave beams sending electricity from space to power our homes may sound like a concept straight out of a science fiction novel, but with a recent announcement from PG&E, we may actually see a solar powered space station in the near future. The system would consist of a series of solar powered satellites 22,000 miles above the Earth’s equator that would generate electricity, convert it into radio waves and then transmit to a base station on Earth. PG&E has entered into a contract with California-based SolarEn Corp. to supply 200 MW of power by 2016. If they succeed in making space solar power affordable, this new technology could be a huge contender in meeting the world’s energy needs.

Space Solar Power is certainly not a new idea – in fact, it’s been around since the late 1960’s when Dr. Peter Glaser introduced the concept of a solar power system in high geosynchronous orbit. Solar power in space has clear advantages over Earth-based solar systems – namely it is 8 to 10 times more efficient. With no atmosphere to transmit through, no interference, and 24 hours of sunlight a day, space solar panels can act as a baseload power source instead of an intermittent one. That alone is an intriguing idea, although its execution will surely prove to be difficult. As an additional bonus, real estate in space is basically still free and there’s a lot of it. Of course that delves into the whole other topic of whether it is right to develop space at all without clear rules and regulations.

SolarEn Corp will use existing technology to launch the satellites into a geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth’s equator. When deployed, the solar station, which could be miles across, will begin to collect the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity, and then convert them into radio waves. Those waves will be beamed back to Earth to a receiving station, which is currently planned for construction outside of Fresno, CA.

Radiation from the radio waves is certainly a concern, but proponents of SSP say that if spread out over a wide area, the waves will not cause any harm to plant life, animals or humans. The receiving station therefor must cover a large area of land in a sparsely populated region, but still have convenient access to transmission lines.

The project is expected to cost around $2 billion, which will mainly go towards the R&D of the base station and launching the satellites. SolarEn CEO Gary Spirnak has complete confidence in the concept and the company’s ability to develop this system. In fact, he projects that they will be able to generate 1.2 to 4.8 gigawatts of power at a price that is comparable to other forms of renewable energy. PG&E is also committed to the idea and has entered into a 15 year contract with SolarEn to produce enough power for 250,000 homes.

This isn’t the only SSP under development now – Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is also workign on a similar system, but instead of radio waves, they will transmit power via laser beam. Both companies ideas seem a little far-fetched, but if either of them succeed, it could mean huge things for renewable energy generation.

Check out an interesting interview with Solaren CEO Gary Spirnak.

+ SolarEn



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  1. Jaen April 26, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Given the size of the human population, the energy demands of our increasingly various and complex technologies, the great disparities in access to same and economies of scale, some large projects will be necessary to meet demand. Although, in some industries, food production/distribution for instance, economies of scale have been exceeded and decentralization and lower tech applications are very likely to prove more efficient in meeting our needs, the sophistication and expense of the materials and technology of energy production and high demand, simply will not be met economically in small scale applications.

  2. alexjameslowe April 22, 2009 at 6:06 pm


    I don’t think this is a quick fix- it will take a couple of decades before a large space-based solar generators can be deployed on a large scale.

    “This is what a cell phone uses- now lets see here… didn’t they discover that too much cellphone use is bad for you????”

    No, they didn’t discover that. The studies on that topic are dubious and equivocal at best.

    “Is this going to cause a bigger hole in the atmosphere?”

    Ozone depletion is caused by a chemical reaction between oxygen and chlorofluorocarbon pollution. The radiation from space-based solar collectors wouldn’t react with the air hardly at all. People have been using radio emitters and microwave emitters since WWII and even before- it is one of the most robust and well-documented technologies that exist. If they did alter the chemical make-up of air, we would have seen it by now.

    That said, it *would* indeed be dangerous to live in a large column of microwave radiation from space. Precisely because of that, engineers are looking into radio and laser transmission. The latter could be very precisely directed, although lasers tend to be less efficient in the atmosphere.

    It’s true that the long-term effects would need careful study. But we already know what the long-term effects of our current trajectory are if we do nothing- total disaster.

  3. ELBOW FINGER April 22, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    This coming from the company that gave all of those people cancer from polluted ground water. And yes I just watched erin brocovitch.

  4. Gong Jian April 22, 2009 at 6:00 am

    I’m a reporter for China Energy News.I want to hear you.
    Gong Jian from Beijing

  5. echarles April 21, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Is this going to cause a bigger hole in the atmosphere? Plus I though we already had a death-ray. What if a bit of space dust bumps it and children in south america get fried.

    Wow the world is bad- rich people need to stop rushing into ideas that are just quick fixes. We need some real innovation without scary consequences.

    Dear alexlowe: I think you are missing the fact that it says they are beaming MICROWAVES. This is what a cell phone uses- now lets see here… didn\’t they discover that too much cellphone use is bad for you???? Doesn\’t your microwave come with warnings about standing away from it while it is running??? Also lets take a look at the fundamentals: this is a big project and we have no idea what it could do in the long run. Example Hoover dam- yeah it makes a lot of power, yeah it gave people jobs and money, but big problem- it changed to face of the earth and the heat produced from the turbines is ruining the ecosystem in the river downstream. YUCKY- no I don\’t agree with this at all. We need to start small on the consumer product end first.

  6. alexlowe April 21, 2009 at 11:51 am

    This is a brilliant idea that will absolutely be the key to ending the fossil fuel age.

    As for the concerns that we are \\\’blasting\\\’ the earth with more radiation- please read basic physics. The orbiting solar collectors are not creating any additional energy to transmit through the atmosphere. They are merely converting a tiny fraction of the sun\\\’s rays directed at Earth into a more usable form.

    The critical point is that the radiation is already directed at Earth, so it will hit the atmosphere *regardless of whether the solar collectors are there or not*

    In fact, the energy in the form beamed down by the solar collectors does not react with CO2 molecules in the same way visible light does- i.e. they will generally not contribute to the greenhouse effect at all. And once you factor in the amount of pollution this will displace, it is clearly a brilliant idea.

    I\\\’m not a fan of BigCorp either, but it seems like they\\\’ve hit this on the head.

  7. aarioli April 21, 2009 at 7:32 am

    This is big, centralized and dangerous. A BigCorp initiative. We need small, decentralized power supply, not trillion dollar targets.

  8. treythefarmer April 20, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    Solaren is a little bit ridiculous. Check out this story:
    I feel like blasting the earth with radiation is probably a recipe for disaster, but maybe im old fashioned.

  9. pogi April 20, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    C’mon, do we want to pump more energy to our overheating planet??

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