PG&E is looking to the stars for a new power source. Or rather, a new take on an old power source – the oldest power source, actually. The Sun. The power company is hoping to literally beam solar energy down to Earth. Just how exactly will they be doing this? Glad you asked. Solaren Corp, a startup from whom PG&E have already agreed to purchase power, plans to launch the world’s first orbiting solar farm. Their idea is to capture some of the raw, unfiltered-by-our-atmosphere sunlight and beam it down to Earth via electromagnetic waves where it gets transmitted into the California power grid . In theory, the purity of the sunlight captured in space combined with around-the-clock availability would make Space-solar 8-10 times more efficient than our best current solar energy systems. For a clear depiction of this process, see this explanatory diagram from New Scientist.
Sounds a bit like science fiction, doesn’t it? Although there is fictional precedent for this–Issac Asimov’s 1941 short story Reason was set on a space station that beamed energy to Earth–there’s also a practical precedent. In many ways Solaren are revisiting some of the groundbreaking ideas of noted inventor/engineer Nikola Tesla. Way back in 1891, Tesla demonstrated the wireless transmission of energy. Although the solar aspect of the project is a new (to him) spin on things, Tesla believed it was possible could create a system of wireless electricity that we could freely tap into whenever it was necessary. Of course, the dark side of wireless energy is the inherent potential to create a “death ray.” Opponents of Solaren’s plan have objected to the potential of an orbiting death ray, worried that birds would be fried by solar energy or the airplane equipment would be affected by such a beam. There’s nothing to worry about, say Solaren. “With an airplane flying at altitude, the sun is putting about four or five times more energy on the airplane than we would be.” Tesla also proposed that the wireless transmission technology could be adapted for what he called a “peace ray,” but could find no funding for the project. And if Christopher Priest, Chris Nolan, and David Bowie would be believed, he invented a matter transporter. But that’s just science fiction, right? Right?
But getting back to the here and now, if you’re probably thinking “hey, we’re in an energy crisis. shouldn’t the government be looking into this?” you’d be right. The government did, in fact, look into this. From a 2007 Pentagon report “enabling wireless power transmission technology could facility extremely flexible “energy on demand” for combat units and installations across an entire theater, while significantly reduction dependence on vulnerable over-land fuel deliveries. Unfortunately, although the program is clearly has its military advantages, the Pentagon found it cost prohibitive. The PENTAGON found it cost prohibitive. But that was two years ago. And that was before Solaren came onto the scene. The solar soothsayers tell PG&E that they’ve found a way around many of the perceived problems the Pentagon encountered. If true, Solaren should be holding those cards close because they might be on to something big.
The move to solar energy is nothing new for PG&E. The company is under a mandated by the state to obtain 20% of their power from renewable sources and have been working towards that goal for a few years now. But with the space-solar system, a lot details (like…um, cost) remain unknown. Solaren and PG&E remain optimistic, claiming that the system can be up and running by 2016, with PG&E on board to the tune of 200 megawatts – enough to potentially power 15,000 homes.