Power From Space – In less than 10 years?

by Eric on April 14, 2009

Readers of the this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle may be wondering whether the age of jet packs and flying cars will be upon us sooner than later.

In today’s story by David R. Baker, Pacific Gas and Electric, the power company responsible for most of energy generation and transmission for the California Bay Area, is requesting permission from the Public Utilities Commission to purchase power from Solaren, a startup company with plans to develop and build a Space Power System (SPS) system, scheduled for operation in 2016.

Anybody that keeps up with science fiction or futurist literature already knows that the typical SPS consists of a solar collection satellite in geostationary orbit that beams microwaves toward the earth and a antenna ground station (called a rectenna) to receive and convert them into electricity to feed the power grid. Of course all satellites do essentially this at very low power levels, but when you scale up your antenna from the DirectTV dish on the roof to the size of acres, all that radio energy can be converted into 1.21 gigawatts of electricity. At least that’s the idea.

There are a lot of technical obstacles, for instance the satellite solar array itself. It would likely be one of the largest structures ever put into space. As the size of an orbital structure increases, so do orbital stability issues, not to mention durability in the harsh space environment. How do you get usable power from the satellite down to the ground? The memo sites an experiment done for the Discovery Channel that beamed power between two Hawaiian islands 90 miles apart. That seems to be a bit short of the 22,000 miles separating a geostationary satellite from the ground station. Lastly, there are ground station issues as well. How does the weather affect the quality of the signal? How efficient will the rectenna power conversion be?

I’m not qualified to judge the merits of this system, or its feasiblity, especially since PG&E’s memorandum to the PUC omits all the pesky details, citing confidentiality, but considering how Solaren has virtually no web presence, much less any track record building or launching satellites, I have to wonder whether this isn’t some kind of vaporware project. The agreement will be to buy power from Solaren, not to actually fund any of the construction costs. Where will Solaren get the funding to test a prototype, launch the power satellites, build the ground stations, and so on?

PG&E claims these issues have been solved to their satisfaction, but it still looks likes they’re hitching their wagon to a untested technology, perhaps over those that are well-grounded(!) like solar, wind, and geothermal. The answer to that question may be located in a section entitled “RPS Goals:” (emphasis mine)

Senate Bill (“SB”) 1078 established the California RPS Program, requiring an electrical corporation to increase its use of eligible renewable energy resources to 20 percent of total retail sales no later than December 31, 2017. The legislature subsequently accelerated the RPS goal to reach 20 percent by the end of 2010. In addition, California is actively considering increasing its renewable goals beyond the current 20 percent renewable energy target. Governor Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order issued in November 2008 describes a new target for California of 33 percent renewable energy by 2020. The California Legislature is actively considering legislation increasing the overall RPS target to 33 percent. Finally, the California Air Resource Board’s Scoping Plan, adopted in December 2008, identifies an increase in the renewables target to 33 percent by 2020 as a key measure for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting California’s climate change goals. As discussed above, the PPA contributes to these RPS goals in the years beyond 2010.

Is PG&E entering into a contract for a completely speculative venture so that it can claim it has filled its legally-mandated quota for renewable energy? It looks like Mark Toney of the Utility Reform Network is as suspicious as I am:

Mark Toney, head of The Utility Reform Network watchdog group, fears that the difficulty of meeting the state’s requirements has pushed PG&E into supporting an expensive distraction.

“It really seems like an act of desperation,” he said. “We really think PG&E should be spending more time on proven technologies closer to home that we can really count on. This just seems so remote, in more ways than one.”

I hope SPS is the dream its proponents say it is, but for now it’s just a dream, and PG&E shouldn’t be able to use the future promise of SPS to avoid its obligation to produce clean, renewable energy now.

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