Power company plans first orbital solar power satellite

Pacific Gas and Electric is reportedly seeking permission to test a solar power satellite, which would send energy generated in orbit to a radio receiver station in Fresno County, California.

the solar energy available in space is eight-to-ten times greater than on earth. There’s no atmospheric or cloud interference, no loss of sun at night, and no seasons. That means space solar can be a baseload resource, not an intermittent source of power.

In addition, real estate in space is still free (if hard to reach). Solaren needs to acquire land only for an energy receiving station. It can locate the station near existing transmission lines, greatly reducing delays that face some renewable power projects sited far from existing facilities.

While the concept of space solar power makes sense, making it all work at an affordable cost is a major challenge, which Solaren says it can solve.

Unfortunately, despite the 200 megawatt output. the frequency used means that it’s completely safe. Thinking meat that strays into the beam won’t feel a thing.

Space Solar Power: The Next Frontier? [Next100 via jwz]

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16 Responses to Power company plans first orbital solar power satellite

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is the start of the next industrial revolution!

  2. dculberson says:

    “the frequency used means that it’s completely safe”

    I’m open to this idea, but don’t know the details of an energy form that can transmit megawatts of power in a tight beam but be perfectly safe to living creatures. It seems like an impossibility.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Uh huh. I remember the microwave power station misfires in SimCity 2000…

  4. jjasper says:

    Ah, but if I change the frequency, *instant death ray*.

    I’ll avoid targeting downtown LA, for say, 200 Biiiiiiilion dollars.

  5. Rob Beschizza says:

    IONIZING RADIATION (YES (NO)

  6. Anonymous says:

    This makes me want to play Sim City 2000. Those beams loved to go off target and scorch cities.

  7. airshowfan says:

    Bugs @11,

    Oh, I see what you mean. You’re talking about the “sunset” effect of more radiation getting absorbed because it goes through more air because it’s coming in at a shallower angle. To be honest, I didn’t take that into account at all.

    Well, they can pick a frequency that goes through the air (and humidity and so on) better than the mixture of frequencies that make up sunlight. Actually, here’s a relatively simple way of thinking about whether this is worthwhile, from that point of view: When sunlight goes through the air (at some given angle), some percentage of it is absorbed or scattered, and the rest can theoretically be captured by a solar panel. Now, imagine that a satellite captures sunlight, converts it to electricity, and then to a frequency that can make it through the air (at that same given angle) without being scattered or absorbed as much. What is greater; the losses of natural sunlight going through the air, or the losses of the satellite’s energy conversions? If the losses of the satellite’s energy conversions are greater, then you’re better off just putting those solar panels on the ground. Right?

  8. Bugs says:

    According to the safety notes linked to from the Next100 article, my objections in the previous post about this have mostly been sorted.

    I’d be interested in the logistics of this, though. I can’t see how they can make this work except with a geostationary satellite, which presumably means they’d get the most efficient transmission by siting the receiver on or very near the Equator.

    Would they be able to get this power to the USA through land cables with acceptable effeciency? Or would it be a deal more along the lines of selling the power to, e.g. Brazil and using the cash to buy power from more local, conventional sources to re-sell to their customers?

    Can anyone with better knowlege of satellite paths and/ or energy markets enlighten me?

  9. Latente says:

    so no Low Orbit Ion Cannon?

  10. Bugs says:

    @dculberson:
    There’s a .pdf in the fourth link on the linked next100 page that goes into a bit more detail. They talk about sending it as microwave energy distributed over an area in the region of 2km in diameter. The total energy is huge, but the density is low, about “3% as strong as a typical countertop oven” at the centre and much weaker towards the edges. I wouldn’t want to spend too much time standing in the middle or fly a plane through it, but we’d be unlikely to see many ready-cooked birds falling from the sky.

    Airshowfan @13 (Thanks for showing solidarity to my hashless existance. It means a lot.)

    Yes, presumably I’m expecting to see too much loss as it’s going through the atmosphere. I have some very minor experience with microwave-frequency ham radios, and was always amazed by how efficiently rain seemed to soak up the signals. I suppose it’s possible that a multimillion dollar energy company will have access to better tech than found in my dad’s shed.

    “If the losses of the satellite’s energy conversions are greater, then you’re better off just putting those solar panels on the ground. Right?”
    Right. Actually, that thought clarifies something I thought was odd. In the .pdf I mentioned, they say “…the power density of the beam is weaker than the power density of sunlight“.

    If their “rectenna” really can get 87% efficiency, I can see how they’d still end up with more energy/area than ground-based solar panels. Like you I have a hard time believing that the price margin justifies that gain, but better-informed people than I are convinced they’ll turn a profit so I’ll reserve judgement.

    Also: that .pdf link is really worth reading, purely because they repeatedly use the word “rectenna”. I should be above sniggering, but I still am.

  11. Anonymous says:

    surely it would be subject to the same reduction in efficiency as it passed into the earths atmosphere as the suns rays when they come individually.

    this read to me like an april fools joke. a 10 times increase in the amout of sunlight sounds hardly worth sending something to space for.

    especially considering the unmaintainability, rocket fuel costs and losses from the transfer process.

    unless it is the ion canon and this is a cover up

  12. mralistair says:

    surely it would be subject to the same reduction in efficiency as it passed into the earths atmosphere as the suns rays when they come individually.

    this read to me like an april fools joke. a 10 times increase in the amout of sunlight sounds hardly worth sending something to space for.

    especially considering the unmaintainability, rocket fuel costs and losses from the transfer process.

    unless it is the ion canon and this is a cover u

  13. airshowfan says:

    #5,

    If the power is beamed with a high-gain antenna, then it is effectively focused on whatever spot you want to focus it on. An antenna whose curvature and phasing is custom-designed for the distance it will beam stuff to will deliver just about the same output if you design it for a distance of 22,000 miles or 26,000 miles.

    (And even if you were using an omnidirectional antenna – i.e. zero gain, square-law decrease in intensity as distance increases – the difference in distance from “geostationary satellite to the equator” and “geostationary satellite to the US” is only a few thousand miles at most, which out of 22,000 isn’t that big a difference).

    You know how laser beams don’t get any wider or less intense as they travel through space (unless there’s air and stuff in the way)? You can do much the same thing with a well-designed antenna. There will be some loss of power getting the beam made, but once the beam is on its way, distance won’t matter much.

    That doesn’t mean that the idea is practical. There will be losses in converting sunlight to electricity, losses in converting electricity to EM radiation, losses in shaping that EM radiation into a focused beam, losses as that beam travels through the atmosphere, losses in converting that beam to electricity, and of course the huge cost of getting a large spacecraft into orbit. I would guess that energy is not quite expensive enough (at least not yet) for this to pay for itself, but I don’t know enough about energy markets to say that with any authority.

  14. dorkhero says:

    About damn time!

  15. szielins says:

    Now all we need is evidence that this “Solaren Corporation” has a hope in Hades of accomplishing anything whatsoever. Look at its Wikipedia page– it was created on April 14th, which, as I type this, was yesterday.

    Methinks someone at PG&E got conned.

  16. Bugs says:

    @Airshowfan @8 (“@” because this rubbish apple keyboard doesn’t have a hash key)

    I understand the idea of focusing the signal to avoid dispersion. I actually (wrongly, I think?) assumed that they’d be doing something along the lines of using sunlight to power a microwave laser array to avoid the issue completely. I was thinking that sending the beam to the USA would significantly increase the distance travelled through the atmosphere, where almost all the losses would occur. I can’t be bothered to work out the change in path length between points on an arc then work out what proportion of that is in the atmosphere; I’ll take your word for it if you say it’s minor.

    The fourth link in the Next100 article claims an expected 2% loss of energy as the beam travels through atmosphere (although admits that rain cells will increase this) and a receiver efficiency of 87%. These figures seem to be from an group run by interested companies so are probably best-case estimates, but they’re still much better than I expected.

    You’re right about the launch cost. This New Scientist article from 2007 has some unsourced estimates. To replace a medium-sized coal power plant they quoted 3000 tonnes, which would need over a hundred shuttle launches to get up there. The figures are probably better now thanks to lighter and more efficient panels, but it’s still a big undertaking.

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