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After years of talk that space-based electrical energy generation could aid everyone from front-line troops to homemakers, a Northern California utility has become the first customer of a Southern California satellite startup that says it can do just that.
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)—which blankets the northern part of the state and is one of California’s four major energy distributors—has asked the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to approve a space solar power (SSP) purchase agreement with Solaren Corp. of Manhattan Beach. Solaren would provide up to 200 megawatts of electricity beamed from a geosynchronous satellite constellation by June 1, 2016. A Solaren receptor farm near Fresno would transfer the electricity to PG&E, which would feed it into the state’s power grid.
Started in 2001 with private seed funding, Solaren has largely gone unnoticed. It is staffed by about 10 engineering veterans, mostly from the U.S. Air Force’s space program and Hughes Aircraft Co. (which Boeing acquired).
Assuming CPUC approval, Solaren’s obscurity is bound to change. Its staff is expected to reach 100. Armed with the PG&E contract, the company’s finance team, including CEO Gary Spirnak, already is finding more interest from venture capitalists.
The Solaren SSP constellation will require at least two spacecraft and perhaps four. They will be the largest satellites ever launched. The solar concentrator alone is likely to measure 1 km. in diameter. The company’s contribution will be the design, systems engineering and spacecraft specifications it brings to the quest for a viable SSP project, rather than specific satellite or manufacturing technologies, such as for solar cells, antennas or solid-state amplifiers.