Saturday, April 18, 2009

Space Based Solar Power: Reality or Science Fiction?

Pacific Gas and Electric Company, based in San Francisco, is one of the largest combination natural gas and electric utilities in the United States. They have recently announced intentions to seek approval to purchase 200 megawatts worth of solar power delivered from solar panels from space. These panels will be built and put in place starting before year 2016 and spread through 15 years by space solar power company Solaren. Unfurled in space, these panels would be exposed to near-constant sunlight unaffected by clouds or bad weather delivering consistent power. Once completed, it is hoped they could produce enough clean energy to fuel half a million homes. When I began to read several articles pertaining to this subject, I was skeptical yet excited at the same time. My initial reaction was how would you transmit the energy collected from outer space to the electrical grid located in northern California? Also, what overwhelming benefits are there doing it this way over conventional solar panels on ground to warrant such costly endeavor?

The articles suggest transmitting solar energy via radio waves that was proved possible by NASA last year when solar power was beamed 90 miles between two Hawaiian Islands. First article explained that “The power would be converted into radio frequency energy, transmitted to a receiving station to Fresno County, converted back into electrical power and fed into the power grid.” I don’t know much about the technology, but I do have some safety concerns about objects and people that may be in the way of the transmission. In addition, what would be the true cost of this program when you take into consideration the cost of sending rockets in space to place the solar panels, to the cost of performing maintenance on these panels once they are in orbit? I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this.


koh said...

I don't know anything about the system, but an interesting thing I noticed was that they planned to transmit the power back to Fresno county. That's near SCE's service territory (the other big California utility) and Fresno is basically surrounded by SCE counties, I wonder if SCE would start doing the same thing if PG&E finds the project successful and share a receiving station.

rossen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rossen said...

Nikola Tesla, the person who invented, and along with Westinghouse, instituded the three-phase power system as we know it today did wireless power transmission more than a 100 years ago. His patent is dated back to the year 1900.
The technology is nothing new, and it is a shame it has not been used until now.

Anonymous said...

I saw a presentation by someone advocating space-based solar at last year's ASME Energy & Sustainability conference. From what I saw, a project like this isn't feasible. The thermodynamics of it just don't work out - you end up using an incredible amount of materials and resources getting these things into orbit.

The potential benefits are very appealing because the intensity of the solar radiation is much greater in space (not diminished by our atmosphere), but I question the practicalities of a system like this.

Som said...

I think what has prevented wireless power transmission from being used popularly as opposed to radio/EM transmission is its efficiency. It was only a few yrs back that a MIT lab was able to wirelessly power a light bulb with some respectable efficiency. However, if i remember correctly, they did that across a room!