Energy company SolarEn has reached an agreement with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in California to provide solar energy beamed from space using giant orbiting panels. They hope to start as soon as 2016.
SolarEn aims to bypass the problem of not being able to collect solar energy at night on the Earth's surface, by sending these satellites up into orbit. They have agreed to provide 200 megawatts of energy over the span of the 15-year agreement they signed with PG&E - although there are hopes the panels could produce as much as 1000 megawatts. Even just the 200 megawatts they've signed on for would be enough to power 150,000 households.
While this is not the first attempt to collect solar energy in space - such proposals date back to the sixties - it's easily the most serious, and the first to lead to an actual deal with an energy company. That's partially because it's only now that all of the technology needed to pull off such a feat actually exists. Commercial rockets can easily get the panels into their orbits 22,000 miles above the Earth, but SolarEn's real breakthrough is the system to send the collected energy from the panels down to the ground.
The panels will convert the solar energy into radio waves, which will then be beamed to Earth. Although constantly transmitting that much raw energy in radio wave form might seem potentially dangerous, SolarEn founder Gary Spirnak explained that such a system is perfectly safe. He pointed out that what they propose to do is pretty much exactly what communication satellites have been doing harmlessly for years; indeed, SolarEn adapted such existing technology to make their new system.
The only real stumbling block left is the price tag. To produce the promised 200 megawatts using more traditional renewable energy sources would only cost around 200 million. SolarEn, on the other hand, has estimated it would need at least a few billion dollars to get the panels in place, although they are optimistic that the long-term savings would make up for the huge initial investment.
It all sounds pretty cool, but I've got to admit I'm still a little skeptical. Am I really the only person who remembers the last time we launched a giant reflective panel into space in the name of being environmentally friendly?