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California gives green light for space-based solar

Utility PG&E and aerospace start-up Solaren plan to generate 200 megawatts worth of base load power from satellites equipped with solar panels in space.

California regulators on Thursday approved an ambitious project to beam solar energy from space starting in 2016.

Under a power purchase agreement approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, utility Pacific Gas & Electric will purchase electricity from technology provider Solaren if it successfully deploys its space-based solar collectors, which would be the first of its kind.

PG&E has contracted to buy 1,700 gigawatt hours per year for 15 years from Solar for its space-based solar arrays, which will have a generating capacity of 200 megawatts. That's smaller than a full scale nuclear or natural gas plant but enough to supply thousands of homes. The anticipated date of operation is June, 2016.


Space-based solar, an idea that has been around for decades, is being pursued by companies and researchers around the world. Its key advantage over land-based solar or wind power is that can generate renewable energy around the clock. The California Public Utilities Commission gave the go-ahead to the project in an effort to meet the state's aggressive renewable energy goals.

Solaren's plan calls for using satellites equipped with solar photovoltaic panels and mirrors to generate electricity, which is transmitted via microwaves to a ground receiver station in Fresno County, Calif. The receiver then converts the radio frequency energy to electricity and it is fed into the power grid.

Based in Southern California, Solaren is run by veterans from aerospace companies. Engineers have designed a relatively lightweight system around a Mylar mirror that's 1 kilometer in diameter to concentrate light onto the solar panels to squeeze more electricity from them, according to an article in Grist.

A PG&E representative on Thursday said that the utility will only pay Solaren if it delivers the power. The cost of the electricity is competitive with land-based renewable energy sources, he added.

"If this works, it would be a real game changer. But for our customers, there's really no or little risk, so it's worth supporting something that has credible people behind it with years of experience who think they can make it work," said Jonathan Marshall from PG&E.

When announcingthe PG&E deal in April, Solaren CEO Gary Spirnak said the company plans to run pilot tests before an actual launch, drawing on company employees' experience in aerospace.

"Once in geosynchronous orbit, a series of SSP (space solar power) pilot plant system tests will validate the satellites and ground receive station functions and verify performance, safety and key parameters to ensure successful operations. When we complete these steps, we will then be ready to deliver power to PG&E in 2016," Sprinak said.