By Alan Boyle
msnbc.com
updated 4/13/2009 10:41:47 PM ET 2009-04-14T02:41:47

California's biggest energy utility announced a deal Monday to purchase 200 megawatts of electricity from a startup company that plans to beam the power down to Earth from outer space, beginning in 2016.

San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric said it was seeking approval from state regulators for an agreement to purchase power over a 15-year period from Solaren Corp., an 8-year-old company based in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The agreement was first reported in a posting to Next100, a Weblog produced by PG&E.

Solaren would generate the power using solar panels in Earth orbit and convert it to radio-frequency transmissions that would be beamed down to a receiving station in Fresno, PG&E said. From there, the energy would be converted into electricity and fed into PG&E's power grid.

PG&E is pledging to buy the power at an agreed-upon rate, comparable to the rate specified in other agreements for renewable-energy purchases, company spokesman Jonathan Marshall said. Neither PG&E nor Solaren would say what that rate was, due to the proprietary nature of the agreement. However, Marshall emphasized that PG&E would make no up-front investment in Solaren's venture.

"We've been very careful not to bear risk in this," Marshall told msnbc.com.

Solaren's chief executive officer, Gary Spirnak, said the project would be the first real-world application of space solar power, a technology that has been talked about for decades but never turned into reality.

"While a system of this scale and exact configuration has not been built, the underlying technology is very mature and is based on communications satellite technology," he said in a Q&A posted by PG&E. A study drawn up for the Pentagon came to a similar conclusion in 2007. However, that study also said the cost of satellite-beamed power would likely be significantly higher than market rates, at least at first.

In contrast, Spirnak said Solaren's system would be "competitive both in terms of performance and cost with other sources of baseload power generation."

Solaren's director for energy services, Cal Boerman, said he was confident his company would be able to deliver the power starting in mid-2016, as specified in the agreement. "There are huge penalties associated with not performing," he told msnbc.com. He said PG&E would be "our first client" but was not expected to be the only one.

The biggest questions surrounding the deal have to do with whether Solaren has the wherewithal, the expertise and the regulatory support to get a space-based solar power system up and running in seven years. "Quite a few hurdles there to leap," Clark Lindsey of RLV and Space Transport News observed.

Slideshow: Space shots

In the Q&A, Spirnak said his company currently consists of about 10 engineers and scientists, and plans to employ more than 100 people a year from now. He said each member of the Solaren team had at least 20 years of experience in the aerospace industry, primarily with Hughes Aircraft Co. and the U.S. Air Force. Spirnak himself is a former Air Force spacecraft project engineer with experience at Boeing Satellite Systems as well.

"The impetus for forming Solaren was the convergence of improved high-energy conversion devices, heavy-launch vehicle developments, and a revolutionary Solaren-patented SSP [space solar power] design that is a significant departure from past efforts and makes SSP not only technically but economically viable," Spirnak said.

Boerman said Solaren's plan called for four or five heavy-lift launches that would put the elements of the power-generating facility in orbit. Those elements would dock automatically in space to create the satellite system. Boerman declined to describe the elements in detail but noted that each heavy-lift launch could put 25 tons of payload into orbit.

"We've talked with United Launch Alliance, and gotten an idea of what's involved and what the cost is," he said.

The plan would have to be cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration as well as the Federal Communications Commission and federal and state safety officials, Boerman said.

In the nearer term, PG&E's deal would have to be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, Marshall said.

He said the space-power agreement was part of PG&E's effort to forge long-term deals for renewable energy, including deals for terrestrial-based solar power. Marshall pointed out that space-based and terrestrial-based solar power generation were "really very different animals."

Unlike ground-based solar arrays, space satellites could generate power 24 hours a day, unaffected by cloudy weather or Earth's day-night cycle. The capacity factor for a ground-based solar is typically less than 25 percent. In contrast, the capacity factor for a power-generating satellite is expected to be 97 percent, Marshall said.

"The potential for generating much larger amounts of power in space for any given area of solar cells makes this a very promising opportunity," Marshall said.

He said the agreement called for 800 gigawatt-hours of electricity to be provided during the first year of operation, and 1,700 gigawatt-hours for subsequent years. The larger figure is roughly equal to the annual consumption of 250,000 average homes.

PG&E has 5.1 million electric customer accounts and 4.2 million natural-gas customer accounts in Northern and Central California.

More on beamed power | renewable energy

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