Sunday, May 17, 2009

Things That Make You Go Wow

Sometimes people come up with really screwy ideas, or at least they seem to be screwy, but somehow some of those ideas get implemented and turn out to be major contributions to our culture. I'm thinking of everything from the telephone and the Internet to Post-Its. Right now, when the biggest challenge facing the planet is climate change, and one of the most essential ways to meet that challenge is to come up with non-carbon based, clean, renewable energy. One start-up company has come up with what many critics are calling a really screwy idea, but maybe this will turn out to be one of those ideas that actually work.

From the Los Angeles Times:

A Manhattan Beach start-up called Solaren Corp. seeks to launch an array of giant solar power collectors into orbit 23,000 miles above Fresno and beam the energy to Earth. PG&E has signed a contract to buy the power -- if Solaren can make the technology work. ...

Solaren won't discuss the details or costs of its plan, other than to give a ballpark price tag at more than $2 billion, to generate enough electricity for 150,000 homes across much of Northern and Central California. It has asked utility regulators to keep the information confidential, for now.

But executives say that by 2016 they can put together the technology to harness energy that constantly bathes Earth from 93 million miles away.

"If our numbers are anywhere near where we think they will be, we will be able to provide power at a cost that's comparable with anything on Earth, that is much cleaner and all from space," says Gary Spirnak, Solaren's chief executive. ...

The concept behind space-based solar power is simple, Solaren says.

Four or five rocket launches would be needed to put enough solar collectors into a stationary orbit to produce 200 megawatts of power, about half the output of a modern natural-gas-fired plant. The solar energy would be converted [to] radio waves and beamed to a receiving station in Fresno, leaving unscathed any birds or airplanes that get in the way of the highly diffused beam. There, it would be converted to either alternating or direct electric current and dispatched to customers via high-voltage transmission lines.

Will it work? Lots of people, including consumer protection organizations, say it's a pie-in-the-sky idea, a screwy idea. Still, the theory has worked out on a limited scale, according to the article. The problem will be in the transmission from space to the earth. Given the company's time line and the speed with which technology grows once a breakthrough is made, that problem just might be overcome.

And it's not like Solaren is being run by a bunch of cranks. They were smart enough to get Pacific Gas and Electric to sign a contract to purchase the energy once it starts to flow. That has two benefits: consumers are not going to have to pay up front to develop the technology and investors have some assurance that if the technology can be developed, there is a buyer already on line.

Admittedly there are a lot of "ifs" in the equation, but it certainly is worth a shot. It also shows that there are still some thinkers around willing to approach a difficult problem with a creative solution. That in itself is grounds for optimism.

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Blogger Cosa Nostradamus said...

The Chinese will do it. They're ahead of us in solar and space, based solely on the will to do it. The technology is all ours.

You have a choice, America: Learn Cantonese, OR...

...learn Mandarin.

Sure, you can pick one from column A and one from column B.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous yoh-there said...

What is kind of interesting is that this idea has been floating around for over 30 years, no kidding, it was in one of my high0school books. Seems though that a couple of people have figured with current technology it is close to being feasible.

Agree on Mandarin, see shameless self-plug

2:15 AM  
Blogger eleaders said...

Assuming the transmission is line of sight (I don't believe it can be anything else unless repeaters are used). Users should expect a 6 to 12 hour outage each day when the earth passes between the arrays and the sun.

5:29 AM  
Blogger Libby Spencer said...

Who knows if it will work but I love the idea. Nice to see techno being developed for constructive uses instead of war, as well.

7:01 AM  

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