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Power Science

Beamed Space Solar Power Plant To Open In 2016? 512

Eric_S writes "Anybody who managed to get a decent city going in Sim City 2000 remembers the microwave power plant; now it seems like a real-world equivalent might be coming up on the horizon. The Pacific Gas and Electricity Company, per this 'interview' with the CEO of Solaren on their affiliated site, announced PG&E's plans to buy 200MW of base-load power from a Solaren beamed space solar power plant by 2016." I wish the skeptic in me would be quiet.
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Beamed Space Solar Power Plant To Open In 2016?

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  • In Space (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:28AM (#28465477)

    In space nobody can hear your company go bankrupt.

    There will be a lot of pissed off investors on Earth though.

    • Re:In Space (Score:4, Interesting)

      by goombah99 ( 560566 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @10:07AM (#28465907)

      lots of pissed birds, bats, pollen and insects too.

      • Re:In Space (Score:5, Funny)

        by Jeremi ( 14640 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @10:46AM (#28466365) Homepage

        lots of pissed birds, bats, pollen and insects too.

        Hell hath no fury like a pollen scorned.

      • Re:In Space (Score:4, Interesting)

        by oni ( 41625 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @11:49AM (#28467113) Homepage

        [citation needed]

        See, I think that your comment is FUD. I think that if these microwaves are at the right frequency to excite water molecules (and thus hurt animals) that they'd also be absorbed by the atmosphere and thus not useful for the transmission of power. But every time this story comes up, someone makes a post based on fear. How sad.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:28AM (#28465481)

    Because the people over there are pretty progressive on the green energy front, and if there are any problems it will be over San Francisco.

  • Funny... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Jason1729 ( 561790 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:30AM (#28465499)
    Why do I picture human-sized ants under a magnifying glass when the beam shifts a little.
    • Sim city (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:41AM (#28465639)
      This is Sim Copter 1 reporting heavy casualties...
    • Human Size Ants (Score:5, Informative)

      by NReitzel ( 77941 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:54AM (#28465767) Homepage

      Because you haven't run the numbers on the beam power density. The Microwave beam is wide, because it's trivial and cheap to make a huge ground antenna, and because agriculture can be carried out under the antenna. THe beam power density can be held down to just a few times noon sunlight power, and still deliver plenty of energy.

      That way, both airplane and albatross are safe to transit the beam area.

      • Re:Human Size Ants (Score:4, Insightful)

        by b4upoo ( 166390 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @10:05AM (#28465879)

        Then again perhaps we can use an albatross to lift this system into orbit as we certainly lack launch capacity for almost anything right now.

        • by gnick ( 1211984 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @10:35AM (#28466255) Homepage

          Perhaps we can contract the launch out to North Korea? I hear they've been making some real strides in that area and could use the $$.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Pontiac ( 135778 )

          Why do you think that?
          Just because the shuttle is not going to be around anymore does not mean we have no launch capability.
          We still have the Falcon 9, Delta IV and Atlas V launch vehicles.
          Delta IV can launch 23,904 lb to GTO []
          Atlas V can put 28,660 lb into GTO []

          Just to compare the Shuttle capacity to GTO is only 8,390 lb

          On Launches to LEO the Shuttle is still outclassed by Atlas V (53,600 lb to Atlas's 64,860 lb)

  • by hargrand ( 1301911 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:30AM (#28465507)

    ... even if they haven't got a clue as to how financially reckless they're being. You kind of have to admire that.

    • Folks like the US military are interested. It's expensive to ship fuel for generators to remote outposts. At those prices for power, SPS are competitive. You also get to remove one logistics vulnerability.

  • Demand? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ComputerDruid ( 1499317 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:31AM (#28465509)

    While this kind of power beaming technology is possible, I can't imagine that it's all that efficient. Are we really low enough on other forms of power that there will be enough demand to support this kind of remote endeavor?

    • by StCredZero ( 169093 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:50AM (#28465723)

      For specific kinds of applications, yes, there is demand. DARPA is interested in this, because electronics use, and there fore electricity use, by the military has expanded tremendously, even in remote locations. A diesel generator has to receive a constant supply of fuel. This is very expensive and inconvenient on the top of a mountain in Afghanistan. A solar power receiving station doesn't. The power supply is invulnerable to attack. The receiving station doesn't make constant noise. In such contexts, power delivered at rates an order of magnitude higher than commercial generation is very competitive.

      We should build something like the Iraqi Super-cannon. The thing was built out of 70's tech and was slated to deliver stuff to orbit for $600/Kg. We could improve on that with new tech and mass production of the rocket-boosted projectiles. Construction materials for SPS could be packaged to survive the G's of being shot out of a cannon. Even electronic components could be built to survive. The US government has specs for electronic components that can survive 100,000 G. (Yes, one hundred thousand!) That would make SPS much cheaper.

    • Compared to ground-based photovoltaic cells, lots of things are efficient.

    • Re:Demand? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by john.r.strohm ( 586791 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @10:27AM (#28466149)

      On power: The object of the exercise is to put the solar arrays in space, cut out all the atmospheric attenuation due to air and clouds, and then send the power down using microwaves, on wavelengths that are not significantly attenuated by air and clouds.

      On pointing: You've never heard of electronically-steered phased array radar, have you?

      On efficiency: When the Jet Propulsion Lab tested microwave power beam technology in the 1960s, between two mountains several miles apart, they were hoping to get 63% transmission efficiency. They actually got over 80%. (I think the number was 88%, but don't quote me.)

      The key concept on the efficiency question is that solar power in space is effectively unlimited, when compared with available solar power at ground level, because of atmospheric attenuation of light. (Photographers who shoot outdoors know all about this.) Once you have unlimited power at the head end, you don't really care very much about losses due to beamforming.

      My source on this is a talk given by Jerry Pournelle in Austin TX in the late 1970s. His slides included photographs of the actual test apparatus, including one of the lit-up light board at the receiving site.

  • Global warming? (Score:2, Interesting)

    I'd be concerned with maybe its effects on the weather, maybe global warming. Also, this could affect radio communications on Earth. Or perhaps not, since it probably would operate off of a different frequency. Personally I think that geothermal energy is still a method of energy production that has yet to be tapped on a more massive scale. Why put up satellites and beam power back to Earth when we have excellent sources of power here?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by internerdj ( 1319281 )
      My thoughts exactly. Have we really tapped all the energy sources here that are reasonable? Apart from the what if it misses and fries someone question, this project would beam extra energy into Earth's energy system. One system might not have a strong effect but lets not forget the law of conservation of energy here.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Personally I think that geothermal energy is still a method of energy production that has yet to be tapped on a more massive scale.

      Strictly speaking, you are correct, geothermal is a method that hasn't been tapped on a massive scale (outside of a few places like Iceland). Problem is, there are issues with induced earthquakes with geothermal. Google Basel Geothermal for an example...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Sir_Lewk ( 967686 )

      What exactly is the issue with diversifying our efforts? There is no rule that states we can only work on one type of technology at a time. I'm tired of all of this "we shouldn't be doing X before we do Y" crap.

    • Re:Global warming? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by hort_wort ( 1401963 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @10:18AM (#28466053)

      I asked this question of an Environmental Physicist. The answer is that it will *prevent* global warming. The reasoning is this:

      Right now, we primarily burn coal to produce energy. This isn't an efficient process at all, putting out about 30% energy and 70% heat. Also, there are all the waste products dumped into the atmosphere associated with burning coal. Meanwhile, beaming the energy back to the Earth will (theoretically) be very, very efficient, as in almost all the energy beamed back will be reclaimed as electricity. Replacing coal with this method would reduce the overall heat by 70%.

      So yes, this idea will heat the Earth, but not nearly as much as coal. As far as causing other weather changes, health problems, and electronic problems, those are possibilities that are unknown until they try it. The signal should be directed quite precisely to their receiver on Earth, and with any intelligence, they will have a safety system such that the beam shuts off immediately if the receiver notices a dip in power.

  • by Rooked_One ( 591287 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:32AM (#28465523) Journal
    My mirror up there in the sky got dinked by a marble sized piece of green cheese and burned up your crop. But don't worry about green, in paper form, cheese form or your crops because you won't be needing those eyes as you looked up at the unusual shiny bright thingy.
  • by hattig ( 47930 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:35AM (#28465569) Journal

    Ah, that's one way to get a quick tan I'm sure.

    We could sell time in it to celebrities.

    Or just run animals* through for quick roast dinners.

    * or celebrities

  • Dear Canada (Score:5, Funny)

    by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:37AM (#28465599) Journal
    Memo from the United States
    February 12th, 2020

    Dear Canada,

    Yesterday a piece of space trash knocked our Microwave Power Plant operating over Oregon off target from its station. Unfortunately, it continued to beam a strong powerful ray of energy down as its sights fell over your Western provinces. We are sorry.

    We urge you not to think of it as "a swath of destruction" so much as "a wicked cool tattoo" ... I heard Mexico is very jealous.

    Williston Lake was a very beautiful lake right up until it evaporated ... but look on the bright side--there sure the hell ain't no zebra mussels left in there now!

    We're also sorry that instead of shutting it down, we just swung it back over Canada to its power station in Oregon and next time we will totally just stop it before this happens. To make up for it, we'll send you some extra power so your people stop rioting and Mad Maxing.

    We hope there's no hard feelings,


    The United States
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Memo from Canada
      February 13th, 2020

      Dear United States,

      We've know for long that your education system was in trouble, but we didn't know the situation was so desperate. You might want to get a refresher course in geography, but just FYI, Canada is to the north, not to the south of Oregon. If you needed economic support, you should have asked.



      PS: Somebody boiled the Bay Area, you might want to check it out.

  • Ouch! (Score:5, Funny)

    by dzfoo ( 772245 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:41AM (#28465641)

    From the Wikipedia article linked:
    "In 1964, William C. Brown demonstrated a miniature helicopter equipped with a combination antenna and rectifier device called a rectenna."

    Heh, rectenna sounds like some alien probing device.


  • if everything works perfectly this will be awesome, but nothing ever works perfectly and just the thought of the things that can go wrong scares the hell out of me.

  • I think I remember seeing the same story, here on /., _months_ ago.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by b4dc0d3r ( 1268512 )

      I think I remember seeing a search feature, here on /., _pixels_ ago.

      Who's going to be the first to use it? You? Me?

      The suspense is terrible.... I hope it lasts.

  • by Trip6 ( 1184883 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:51AM (#28465731)
    It's a power source and a weapon in one! Don't F with us or we'll turn our eco-friendly power beam on you!
  • PG&E doesn't commit itself to anything significant. It's cheap advertising for both the startup and for PG&E.
  • I hope no one accuses me of blogrolling or something, but:

  • A microwave power transmission of this magnitude will use a broad cross section for the beam, such that a big power station is required to absorb the power. If it was suddenly turned and flipped across several miles in a couple seconds, the total amount of extra energy delivered to anyone or anything would be unnoticeable- and microwaves are not ionizing radiation in any event, so if anything bad were to happen, it would be via heat. Does the fact that a person would supposedly be able to be on top of th
  • by Mitchell314 ( 1576581 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @09:58AM (#28465811)
    [off topic] You can make the world's largest microwave oven... [/off topic]

    I noticed this little tid bit:
    200 megawatts of clean, renewable power over a 15 year period.

    How much does that compare to the energy needed for getting it up in space, getting routine maintenance & repair up in space, the maintenance & repair itself, and possible decommissioning?
    • by daveime ( 1253762 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @10:49AM (#28466411)

      I just love this kind of objection.

      How much does that compare to the energy needed for getting it up in space, getting routine maintenance & repair up in space, the maintenance & repair itself, and possible decommissioning?

      So digging / drilling coal and oil out of the ground, and all the processing, transportation and generation infrastructure involved in fossil fuels cost nothing ?

      I think the important point is, *once* the infrastructure for these new renewable energy forms is in place, the power itself comes at zero cost ... wind, sun and water costs nothing ... and doesn't involve the clean up that say coal, oil or nuclear does.

      How to decommission a space based reflector ? Switch the thing off. Done. For extra good measure, fit a booster rocket to it, so we can fire it off into deep space once we're done with it.

      A far cry from safely storing materials with a half life of 10,000 years, or getting rid of all the carbon dioxide we've pumped into the atmosphere in the last 150 years dues to coal and oil.

  • Assuming everything goes well and this becomes a viable source of energy What stops any oil producing nation from blowing it up?
  • The only reason this might work is that it could get military funding. Of course nobody has "death ray" in mind when they come up with designs like this.....
  • by blind biker ( 1066130 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @10:39AM (#28466295) Journal

    So, the gigantic effort to put this solar plant into orbit will create... 200MW of power?

    Contrast to this: 0.3% of the Sahara could power the whole of Europe []

    It's expensive like hell, sure, but it would start delivering energy long before it's completed and its goals are way more ambitious than this flying solar panel's! Think no more unrenewable energy, no more CO2, no more pollutants (sulphur, heavy metals etc.) from coal plants, no more soil erosion due to dams, no more gas or oil (yeah, in italy they have plenty of those) power plants. Only a few windfarms and perhaps the French nuclear plants to iron out the energy needs during night time.

    Don't tell me the USA has a lack of sun and deserts.

    • by Ambitwistor ( 1041236 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @12:10PM (#28467431)

      I think there are some national security implications inherent in relocating all of Europe's electric power generation capacity to Africa. I hope nobody in Africa minds European armies building bases there to guard their energy sources.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        True enough, I agree!

        But there wouldn't be such implications if the USA built such a powerplant somewhere in Nevada, Utah or Arizona (or New Mexico, Idaho or... there's plenty of deserts in your country).

        Compared to the USA, Europe is pretty fucked, when it comes to free areas with plenty of sunlight. But, EU politicians are sucking enough Arab dick, that the political climate may be somewhat favorable for us to build some plants in Morocco and Egypt, perhaps even Algiers, and with enough sucking, Mauritani

  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Thursday June 25, 2009 @11:33AM (#28466915) Journal
    The reason is that currently, the western militia there must import lots of fuel to provide electricity. That is EXPENSIVE. VERY EXPENSIVE. Instead, the groups could put up one of these that have say 5-50 MW and then put small collectors on the ground. It would be MUCH cheaper than bringing in the equipment and fuel. In addition, if a base is overrun, it would be easy to prevent enemy (read Al Qaeda) from using the equipment and new equipment would be much lighter, easier to take care of, etc. Also, once several of these were up there, they could be shifted around to help on Emergency locations. For example, helping Hurricanes, tsunami, Chinese EarthQuake, 9/11, etc. The ability to get power into a large disaster area means, LITERALLY life or death. If we put at least one over every major continent, they could be used normally to help a city that already has coal/gas, but then moved ahead of time for when a disaster is heading there way (hurricanes), or a day or two for unseen disasters that happen. Heck, if done right, private space industry should push this private tugs. These can then be used for doing other work (perhaps getting rid of space junk).
  • Numbers (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Baldrson ( 78598 ) * on Thursday June 25, 2009 @11:58AM (#28467255) Homepage Journal
    The launch costs (Falcon 9 $2500/kg) of satellite solar panels (30W/kg with 15 year lifetime) and basically 0% interest rate (straight line depreciation over 15 years) yields a little over 60 cents per kWh at the satellite. Account for transmission losses and you're talking over $1/kWh at the grid.

    They must have some big economies somewhere they aren't talking about to make this profitable.

Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan