After many months of waiting and debating, the California Public Utilities Commission has approved a plan for local utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to buy space-based solar power from Solaren Corp. The stealth startup, which has a Web site that looks like it came out of a video game from the 1980's, plans to use satellites outfitted with mirrors and solar photovoltaic panels that send power via radio frequency to a receiving station in Fresno.
As part of the contract, PG&E will purchase 1,700 gigawatt hours each year for 15 years. That's enough to generate power for thousands of homes. Solaren's power won't be cheap—PG&E estimates that it will cost more than 12.9 cents per kilowatt-hour (the standard rate), so the utility is obviously betting that costs will eventually come down. Space-based solar power also has the advantage of being available 24/7, unlike ground-based solar panels that only work during the day.
If all goes well, Solaren's satellites will go live in 2016. Pilot tests have yet to be conducted, however, so the viability of the company's plan is still up in the air. Solaren isn't the only organization looking to take advantage of space solar. The Japanese government also plans to have a pilot space-based solar project ready by 2015.