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Courtesy of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

Solar Power
Space Race
Companies are competing to reap energy from the heavens.

Picture a massive, solar cell-lined satellite hovering in outer space. The solar panels continuously collect light from the sun, making energy that’s beamed to earth, where it’s transformed into clean electricity.

It sounds like science fiction, but space-based solar power (SBSP) is quickly becoming a reality. “The idea has been around since the 1960s, but the technology was way behind the vision,” says William Maness, chief technology officer at SBSP company PowerSat. “Now we have computers the size of our watches and thin-film solar cells thinner than a piece of paper. The economics have changed.”

Several companies aim to capitalize on those technological innovations and the world’s growing interest in renewable energy. In January the California Public Utilities Commission green-lighted a power purchase agreement between Pacific Gas and Electric and Solaren Corp., which plans to produce 200 megawatts of SBSP by 2016, enough energy to power thousands of homes, says Cal Boerman, the company’s director of energy services. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency aims to generate 100,000 megawatts with SBSP by 2035. With projects also in the works in China and Europe, the quest to launch the first SBSP system is quickly becoming the next great space race.

Collecting energy in space offers significant advantages over ground-based systems. “The intensity of sunlight is about seven times higher in space, and you can get it 24/7,” says Marty Hoffert, cofounder of Versatility Energy, an SBSP company. With microwave systems, solar power can be beamed to earth even during cloudy days and inclement weather.

The biggest hurdle may be the price tag: Solaren’s project, for instance, will cost billions, with much of the expense coming from rocketing equipment. Some say the systems need to be more efficient, and the technology has yet to be demonstrated in space. Plus, beaming solar power at night will increase light pollution. “It seems like an exciting idea,” says Ken Zweibel, director of George Washington University’s Solar Institute. “[But] it’s impractical because it’s an order of magnitude or more in cost than terrestrial solar, and it’s unnecessary because terrestrial solar is going to work very well.”

“It will cost billions of dollars, but any nuclear plant of similar capacity costs the same,” counters Maness. “We can do something cleaner and get you the same amount of power.”

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