22 May 2011
Features - Power (Good)
Space-based Solar Power by 2016?
Solaren plans to make it happen
by G B Leatherwood
In 2009, Manhattan Beach, CA-based company Solaren, Inc. signed a contract with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to provide 200 megawatts (MW) of clean, reliable electrical power to customers at a rate comparable with existing power generation facilities.

But unlike hydroelectric, coal, fossil fuel, and nuclear production, this power will come from that constant, inexhaustible source, the Sun. This is known as “Space Based Solar Power,” and until recently, it was also known as “science fiction.”

But in the here and now, Solaren designers have developed a system involving multiple satellites to be delivered into geosynchronous orbit ( GEO) on heavy lift launch vehicles similar to the Falcon 9 being tested successfully by the US firm SpaceX.

A number of specially designed and built satellites will capture the Sun's rays, transform them into radio frequency (RF) or microwave energy, and send beams of energy down to receiving antennas (rectennas): unused land in the California heartland close to existing PG&E substations, tied into the existing electrical power grid.

Solaren plans this for 2016—and as of now, the company is on schedule.

To learn more about the current status of the project, Space Future Journal interviewed Mr. Cal Boerman, vice president of electricity sales and delivery, of Solaren Corp.

Space Future Journal: We understand that you have been issued a US patent for your proposed system. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Cal Boerman: Solaren was issued our US patent No. 2006/185726-A1 on August 24, 2006. It is a broad system patent, which means that we have protection if another tries to use our concept of using more than one satellite to implement the SSP system. We feel it is considerably cheaper to implement with multiple satellites.

SFJ: We know this is a very costly endeavor. What is your cost estimate and how are you financing it?

CB: Solaren has always been careful to always just say it will take a few billion dollars to build our first 200 Megawatt (MW) SSP pilot plant for PG&E. We have been able to find wealthy investors who want to do something important by supporting new innovative developments like SSP—that has the potential for changing the future of our world/planet.

SFJ: How are you dealing with the US government regulations?

CB: Solaren has had very good working relationships with and support from the California regulators such as the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (CEC.) Solaren's Power Purchase Agreement with PG&E has received full approval from the CPUC and the CEC. The CEC has said that they have experience and a good working relationships with the corresponding Federal government regulators and will work jointly with the appropriate US agencies to insure that Solaren receives both California and Federal approvals without having to do redundant applications. We are on schedule with all of the Federal regulatory agencies that will have authority over our SSP system.

SFJ: Several companies are busily developing launch vehicles that would seem likely carriers for your satellites. Which of these seem to you to be the most promising, realizing that when the time comes there may be even more to choose from?

CB: Solaren is in discussion with many of the heavy lift launch vehicle providers and we are encouraged by the renewed focus on Commercial Heavy Lift for the US. We will continue to work with all the possible suppliers of heavy lift launch vehicles to ensure that our needs are properly understood and the launch providers of new heavy lift launch vehicles will meet our future launch requirements.

SFJ: Once the satellites are in place they will be ready to beam power down to the target receiving antennas, or “rectennas” on the surface. How did you decide where this should be?

CB: I'll let our CEO, Gary Spinakanswer this one. He put it this way: “We had three major requirements for the selection of the SSP ground receive station. First was the selection of a site that is close to a large load center, second the site had to be a short distance from a PG&E substation, and third was not to use any long distance transmission lines.” In California a location near the city of Fresno seemed to meet all three criteria.

SFJ: Finally, many people still see SSP as science fiction not based on reality. (See the comments in this Popular Science article.) What would Solaren say to them?

CB: Once again I'll defer to Mr. Spinak:

“Solaren really approached this as a business, and the business is selling electricity at a competitive price. Yes, we are all space people and we selected SSP because we wanted the next exciting challenge for a space industry but we have never let ourselves forget that we are selling electricity. The electrical utilities and their customers do not really care where our clean renewable electricity comes from, but they do care that it is cost competitive with coal, gas, and nuclear.

“The other point to make about SSP is that we will deliver electricity 24/7 and that means SSP is classified as a “base load” generating system just like coal, gas, and nuclear. This means that SSP has the ability to replace existing dirty, polluting baseload generating facilities that exist today.

“Yes, SSP has to have a good business plan before investors want to invest. It does not hurt that we are CLEAN and GREEN and our space implementation is exciting but investors want a return on their investments.”

It is only fair to mention that as of this writing, Solaren appears to be in the forefront of efforts to make space based solar power a reality, but there are other experimental projects being conducted; at least one other government, Japan, has indicated a readiness to allocate significant funding to research and development.

With the current enthusiasm being generated by private commercial rocket development it appears that the goal of less expensive, reliable, reusable vehicles is getting closer. And as we know, a world of opportunity will open up when we have Cheap Access to Space…including clean, unlimited energy at a price competitive with current outdated and polluting production sources.
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G B Leatherwood 22 May 2011
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