Beam Me Down, Scotty: PG&E Wants to Generate Space-Based Solar Power


The idea of space-based solar power has been tossed around since the 1970s, and now California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) wants to bring the concept down to earth.

The utility has asked permission from state regulators to sign a contract with Solaren Corp., a stealth start-up. If the contract is signed, Solaren will build the world’s first space-based solar power generator, that will in turn be the first 24-hour solar generator (except during spring and fall equinoxes). PG&E plans on buying up to 200 megawatts of space-based solar power from Solaren as part of the 15-year contract.

During its first year of operation, estimated to be 2016, Solaren will ship 850 gigawatt-hours of power sent by radio frequency from a satellite to a receiving station in Fresno, California. The amount of power shipped will double in later years.

If and when the contract is signed, Solaren engineers will design solar arrays and satellites, perform test launches, and finally move to the pilot stage. It’s an ambitious plan, and one that comes with a lot of risk for the company, as PG&E has only agreed to pay for power delivered. Space-based solar power won’t be cheap, either. PG&E says that the cost of its contract is “above-market” (more than 12.9 cents per kilowatt-hour), but won’t disclose by how much.

If companies like Solaren want to make it, they’ll have to prove that their technology can be deployed cheaply, efficiently, and safely. All of these hurdles have yet to be surpassed, but at least we’ve moved beyond the concept stage after nearly 40 years of talking about space-based solar.