The Pacific Gas and Electric Company is seeking regulatory approval for a space based solar power system. The plan is for a 200 megawatt (MW) facility that will generate electricity from sunlight in orbit and beam it to a ground receiving station using radio waves. Older gamers may recall this technology as the basis of the ‘microwave’ power plants in SimCity 2000. Unfortunately, while the SimCity plants cost just $30,000 and produced 14,000 MW of energy, the 200 MW PG&E facility is expected to cost several billion dollars – far more than ground-based facilities with comparable output. The one real perk of space-based systems in geosynchronous orbits is that they will be exposed to the sun at all times, eliminating the need for storage or load balancing. Some have even speculated that the technology might eventually be able to direct beams of energy directly to facilities (perhaps even vehicles) that require it, reducing the need for transmission and energy storage infrastructure.
I am not sure how to feel about such initiatives. On the one hand, it is possible that space-based solar power will eventually be a commercially and ecologically viable source of energy. On the other, it may be a distraction from the urgent changes that need to occur in the near-term. There are also issues with the emissions associated with space launches, as well as the limited number of slots for satellites in geosynchronous orbit and ‘optical aperture’ issues. For now, it really doesn’t seem like a viable technology. That being said, if a private group can convince regulators that it is safe and environmentally effective, and investors that it is viable, I don’t see any reason to interfere with the attempt.