Space-based solar power

Dark bird on a fence

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “Space-based solar power”

  1. PG&E signs first-of-a-kind space solar power deal. Why?

    Not many people I know think space solar is a low-cost, scalable solution.

    The risk is even greater because land-based solar baseload (or load following or dispatchable solar) — aka Concentrated solar thermal power — is practical and scalable now, and certain to be much cheaper. And land-based PV is poised to drop in cost sharply, and will ultimately have access to tremendous land-based storage through plug-in hybrid and electric cars.

    Then we have the life-cycle emissions issue. It takes a massive amount of rocket fuel to put stuff in orbit.

  2. “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.”

    So, you don’t have faith in political parties, but you do have faith in regulators? Why don’t we let regulators run the banks then?

  3. I have neither zero nor complete faith in all institutions, from Parliament to the Supreme Court to United Nations to the Ottawa bus union.

    It’s an awfully unconvincing argument to say “You think regulators are competent to evaluate power plant proposals, therefore you should support nationalizing the financial sector.”

    Politics, regulation, and the economy are all complex things.

  4. Why don’t we find a way to fly like the beautiful bird in your photo; save a lot of fuel, become healthier in the process and have an incredible experience as well!

  5. The only available geosynchronous slots would be oceanic, wouldn’t they? The ones in line with land masses seem like an awfully valuable commodity to give up.

    On the topic of the emissions from rocket launch, I would think that would be a minimal ‘one off’ cost of doing business. Alternatively, is there anything that prevents them from launching rockets that are completely liquid H2 + liquid O2? There wouldn’t be any CO2 emission from that if the gases were obtained from clean energy.

  6. I believe the hydrogen used by the Shuttle is made from natural gas, though I agree that it is possible in theory to make it through electrolysis of water.

    It would be very interesting to see a lifecycle analysis of the emissions associated with different launch options, fuel types, and fuel manufacturing processes. What kind of commercial launch vehicles are there that burn just oxygen and hydrogen as fuels?

    Even if this particular 200 MW system doesn’t have GHG advantages compared to land-based options, it is also arguable that it has value as a prototype and proof of concept.

  7. The Delta II is solid fuelled, while the Delta IV burns hydrogen and oxygen. The Ariane 5 stages seem to use a variety of fuels. The Proton burns dinitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine.

    What other popular commercial launch vehicles are there? Also, which vehicles are capable of putting satellites into geostationary orbits?

  8. Maybe I just played sim city too many times, but the potential cost of a mess-up in this technology is a little worse than some financial corruption. My point was, why trust regulators in situations where the risk will be borne almost entirely by the public sector (i.e. as in Nuclear), and the profits will be all made by private investors?

    It seems these super high risk technologies, where the private sector can never entirely self-insure, are never a good deal for the public.

  9. The Wikipedia article suggests that the beam with which the power would be sent to the Earth is much less dangerous than in SimCity’s representation:

    “The beam’s most intense section (more or less, at its center) is far below dangerous levels even for an exposure which is prolonged indefinitely.”

  10. Space Based Solar Power ?

    Posted by Big Gav on April 20, 2009 – 9:56am in The Oil Drum: Australia/New Zealand

    There are 2 primary challenges to making space based solar a reality.

    The first is the technological challenge of making a scheme like this work – this is not been so much converting solar energy into radio frequencies (which has been done before, though not on Solaren’s scale) – but in getting a supersized solar array into space and successfully commissioning it.

    The second challenge is one of economics – can the cost involved in building a solar power plant in space ever be competitive with ground based concentrating solar thermal, regular solar PV or thin film solar power plants.

    Plans for space based solar have traditionally included kilometre long structures of solar arrays connected to satellites, and launching thousands of tons of heavy metal into orbit is exorbitantly expensive.

    Solaren’s Spirnak says he has a solution – “We want to take the weight out of these systems. We came up with this design concept to break these things into pieces instead of trying to construct many, many kilometers of structures in orbit, which would essentially be unbuildable.”

    Instead, his station will consist of two to four components that will float free in space (kept in alignment by software controls and small booster rockets rather than heavy wires, cables and struts). According to Solaren’s patent, an inflatable Mylar mirror a kilometer in diameter will collect and concentrate sunlight on a smaller mirror that will focus the rays on the solar array. By adopting a concentrating solar power approach, a smaller and lighter array can be deployed, reducing the cost of lifting the components of the structure into orbit.

    At this point there is little information about cost available for Solaren’s proposal, though Grist quotes Spirnak as saying the price tag for the 200-megawatt solar power station for PG&E will be “in the several billion dollar range” and will require 4 or 5 rocket launches.

  11. Space-based solar energy jumps the shark — or fries the shark Star-Wars style

    Second would be the email response I got from the company in response to my question “Does somebody have a lifecycle CO2 or GHG emissions calculation per kWh given the fuel needed to launch this stuff?” Cal Boerman, Director Energy Services for Solaren, replied:

    “Solaren plans to use launch vehicles (Atlas V/Delta IV Heavy Class) that primarily use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for fuels. The resulting emissions are water. These fuels are formed via electrolysis. The Wikipedia definition is: Electrolysis of water is the decomposition of water (H2O) into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen gas (H2) due to an electric current being passed through the water. Solaren assumes the electricity used for this process was generated from clean resources.

    Therefore the lifecycle environmental impact per kW-hr is negligible. Also, we do not use solid rocket motors so there is no added pollution from them.

    Hope this Helps”

  12. “The PG&E deal is a scam. Pure and simple. We don’t need to study it in detail any more than one needed to study Bernie Madoff’s investment scams. There’s no way to do this any more than there is a way to get 12% return on investment consistently regardless of the economy. Didn’t stop investment in Madoff and it may not stop investment in this harebrained scheme.

    There’s no way to get 200 Megawatts from orbit with microwave beaming by 2016 from private sector investment. The infrastructure to do it efficiently with microwaves requires huge structures in orbit and in-space assembly by robots. This is very far from existing technology. Microwaves are the wrong way to start a space solar power business. What we can do in a few hundred kilowatts with laser beaming to PV modules on Earth in a five year time frame because there’s no in-space assembly needed and single-launch vehicles could likely do it. This could realistically lead to a buildup of a viable orbital and power industry. Even so, we will need major up-front money to test the idea from the feds. The promoters of the PG&E deal idea say they’ll provide a thousand times more power and do it all from the private sector. Might as well say we’re ready to go to the Moon or Mars with private sector financing. The physics of this is very well understood by the research-active SBSP community.”

  13. Grr Starling. Not fond.
    While in the short and medium term space solar is a very expensive option, I can see there is a case for making the exorbitant initial investment now as it has a greater expansion potential for covering our increasing energy needs. If successful, a much larger proportion of our power could be catered for by space solar than by geographically limited and weather dependent land solar. Although I’m ambivalent about cluttering space with ever more Earth-made junk, if I were writing sci-fi set 200 years from now it would be credible to consider all the land solar the early investment stages for the space solar planet-based society and many space installations relied on.

  14. Why do you dislike starlings?

    As for space-based solar, I suggested above that experiments proceed if people are willing to fund them. That being said, I seriously doubt it’s a technology with much potential before 2100 – a date we will need to have effectively solved climate change by, if future generations are to inhabit a world resembling ours.

  15. Neil Reynolds
    You can turn off the lights – or collect solar energy in space

    Strategic prize: Space-based satellites can tap ‘an inexhaustible reservoir’ of clean, renewable energy by 2050 or earlier

    For the moment, Japan leads the way with its ambitious program to collect solar energy in space, convert it into electromagnetic microwaves and deliver it wirelessly to precise locations on Earth. This transmission technology will do to terrestrial power lines what cellphones did to telephone poles. Funded in part by a consortium of 16 corporations (led by Mitsubishi Electric), Japan expects its prototype space-based power station to provide electricity to 300,000 Tokyo homes by 2030.

    The military importance, it notes, is also obvious: “For the [Department of Defence] specifically, beamed energy from space … has the potential to be a disruptive game-changer on the battlefield.” With wireless technology, space-based solar power could deliver electricity across an entire theatre of war – right down to the individual soldier. It could dramatically reduce the chance of international conflict arising from energy shortages, and it could provide on-demand energy for humanitarian purposes in disaster zones. In short, the NSSO says, it could enable the U.S. military “to remain relevant” for the 21st century.

    “The basic idea is very straightforward,” the NSSO says. “Place very large solar arrays into an intensely sunlit Earth orbit. Collect gigawatts of electrical energy and electromagnetically beam them to Earth.” The electricity could be delivered to either conventional electrical grids or directly to consumers. It could also be used to manufacture synthetic hydrocarbons.

  16. Spaced based solar panels, that sounds so cool…I’ve never heard of them before!
    Great post, thanks a lot :-)

    Long live SimCity! ;-)

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