Space-Based Solar Power? PG&E Says Yes as Long as There's No Money Down

| About: PG&E Corporation (PCG)

By Jeff St. John

Can a Southern California company deliver on its promise to have satellites collecting solar power and beaming 200 megawatts of it to earth in the form of microwaves by 2016?

California utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (NYSE:PCG) is willing to buy it, so long as it doesn’t have to put any money down.

That’s the gist of a proposed power purchase agreement announced Monday between PG&E and Solaren Corp., a Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based company founded in 2001 to deliver on a concept first popularized by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in the 1940s.

Under the terms of the agreement PG&E is asking state regulators to approve, the utility will buy the power only if Solaren can deliver it, and has no other financial stake in the project, utility spokesman Jonathan Marshall said Monday.

While Marshall wouldn’t discuss further details of the contract, he did say that the prices PG&E has agreed to pay Solaren for the power are “comparable to what the California Public Utility Commission has approved on other recent renewable energy deals.”

Solaren, for its part, told PG&E in an online interview that its team of long-time NASA and aerospace industry professionals have the knowledge to make it happen.

According to a 2007 report from the Defense Department’s National Security Space Office, space-based solar power is feasible. Whether Solaren has the financial backing and regulatory support for such a novel concept remains to be seen.

CEO Gary Spirnak, a former U.S. Air Force spacecraft project engineer and director of advanced digital applications at Boeing Satellite Systems, told PG&E in an online interview that the scheme will use existing technologies for launching satellites and beaming energy to earth, albeit on a larger scale.

The idea is to put satellites in space that convert solar energy to electricity that will power devices known as solid state power amplifiers, Spirnak told PG&E in an online interview. Those devices convert electricity to radio frequency energy, which will be beamed to a receiver station in California’s Fresno County where it will be reconverted to electricity, he said.

That receiver station will have no more environmental impact than a typical photovoltaic solar power plant, and because it won’t need water will have less impact than a coal, natural gas or nuclear power plant, Spirnak told PG&E.

Space-based solar power also will provide “baseload” power not linked to the rising and setting of the sun, he said. The company intends to deliver power that is “competitive both in terms of performance and cost with other sources of baseload power generation,” he added.

As for the danger of microwave beams from space going astray and burning up the countryside, PG&E referred to a NASA scientist’s paper that made the point that such a space beam carries less energy than sunlight, or about 3 percent of the energy of a typical microwave oven — not enough to boil anyone’s blood.

Also, microwave radiation doesn’t strip away electrons from atoms or molecules, which is the characteristic that makes gamma waves and x-rays dangerous to living organisms, the scientist wrote.

As for fudging on the 2016 timeline, Spirnak wasn’t having it.

“We are required under this PPA to deliver the contracted 200 MW of baseload power on the contracted start date to PG&E, and Solaren is committed to making that date,” he told PG&E.

Calvin Boerman, Solaren’s director of energy services, told Dow Jones Newswires that the company is funded with seed money from Sprinak and other unnamed investors, and is actively seeking more funding.