If you haven't heard about the agreement between the Solaren company to provide space-based solar power (SBSP) to Pacific Gas & Electric beginning about 2016, and the utility's guaranteed purchase of it for 15 years, you may have just returned from a trip deep into the Amazon. PG&E notes in a post on their Next100 blog titled "Solaren: The Media and Pundits Weigh In" , that within two weeks of the agreement it was "reported, analyzed, debated, praised and ridiculed on more than 26,000 web sites". Now, that's buzz!
The blog post profiles a sampling of links to this tidal wave including a good Scientific American article with SBSP background, current status and references to a Solaren patent that gives some clues as to how they expect to pull this off. Their short answer is to make the solar satellite smaller and lighter and as the Soleren CEO indicates, to attract “billions of dollars” in funding. Obviously, much more research, development and feasibility testing will be needed to open the door to such a cash flow. But hey, three cheers to Solaren and PG&E for their optimism, however, the utility is clear that they've assumed no risk.
As most agree, the "holy grail" for the emergence of many new space commerce market sectors, including SBSP, is cheaper, more reliable and predictable access to space. The “personal spaceflight” market whose customers will need to have deep pockets and be plentiful is seen as a critical near-term driver for this improved access. Hopefully, some of these adventuresome customers will have the vision to become future space entrepreneurs – if not part of their initial motivation, then after experiencing a new business development “Overview Effect”.
Let’s assume that space access of the kind that’s needed does evolve which benefits industry, space agencies, military surveillance applications, a wide range of Earth applications, and new public “space consumers” – all key stakeholders and sectors. And let’s assume that Solaren and many other space-based solar energy collaborators implement their near-limitless clean power dream for the world. What might result?
Would the energy benefits be able to flow beyond the developed world?
Would the concentration of SBSP resources make the world vulnerable to an accident-induced “mother” of all blackouts?
Would we still need the many alternative energy sources proposed for development on the ground including solar, wind, wave, geothermal, biofuel, and others?
I have a strong feeling that near and long-term global needs will require a range of alternative energy solutions based on factors that will also change over time. They will likely include investment and development costs, overall system operation costs, acceptable risks, regional and culture-specific requirements, and of course technical sustainability challenges. The complex global energy economy of today will need to be extended and adapted to the use of these new alternative technologies. The cultural and social adaptations required to do this will likely be as challenging as the technical ones. The classic issue of devising and applying “appropriate technology” regionally is still very real and one reason why we need to have teams of well-educated, innovative youth involved, across the globe. That said, I am greatly encouraged when I read about pilot studies in SBSP, both completed and proposed, since some (see the Editor's Pick) who've analyzed global energy needs, think it will be essential.
Space-Based Solar Power: Hope Gets Hyped?
By Richard Mains, Posted 04/29/09