STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, while the government tries to figure out how far to go to curb pollution, one company in Southern California thinks it found the answer - 22,000 miles straight up. NPR's Ina Jaffe explains.
INA JAFFE: We all know how a conventional power plant works, right? You burn coal or natural gas or split some atoms. That heats water, which makes steam, which sets a turbine spinning.
(Soundbite of turbines)
JAFFE: And that makes electricity.
But the Solaren Company wants to make electricity that'd be associated with another kind of sound:
Unidentified Woman: Three, two, one. We have ignition and liftoff.
JAFFE: Solaren, as you may guess from their name, is in the solar power business. And if you're looking for a location for a solar power plant, space has got a lot going for it. There is sunshine 24/7 and the real estate is free.
But getting all the parts up there and putting them all together, that's the hard part. Scientists have been looking for a way to do that for decades.
Mr. GARY SPIRNAK (CEO, Solaren): The thing in space was going to be so heavy, it was going to take, I mean, hundreds or thousands of rockets to put in orbit and thousands of astronauts.
JAFFE: That's Gary Spirnak, the CEO of Solaren. About eight years ago, he got together with a bunch of engineers he knew from his years at Hughes Aerospace.
Mr. SPIRNAK: You know, they'd been in the business for 20, 30 years. They had solved just impossible problems for, you know, working on a lot of government programs that you can't talk about.
JAFFE: So, they all started trying to figure out how to make an orbiting solar power plant light enough so that it could be launched relatively cheaply. The solution they came up with was to not make one big thing, but to put two or three or even four separate modules in the same geo-synchronous neighborhood.
Mr. SPIRNAK: They have a radar and they kind of track each other, and there's little thrusters that keep themselves into position.
JAFFE: So, one part is, in essence, a big mirror that collects and focuses sunlight on part two; the solar panels, which beam energy to part three; a really huge antenna that focuses and beams power back to earth in the form of radio waves.
Mr. SPIRNAK: Each of those parts could fit on an existing rocket. So, you don't need to design a brand new rocket to go off and do things. And so that's great. Number two: since you don't have to put them together, you don't need astronauts or robots.
JAFFE: And in terms of technology, there's not a lot that's really new, says Spirnak. Satellites already run on solar power. And if you have satellite TV, you're already receiving radio waves from space. That's why Solaren believes it can have its solar power plant launched and operating in the year 2016.
Mr. JONATHAN MARSHALL (Spokesman, Pacific Gas and Electric): If it works, it could be a real game changer in the industry, and indeed for the entire world.
JAFFE: Says Jonathan Marshall, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric. PG and E has signed the nation's first commercial contract to buy enough power from Solaren for nearly a quarter of a million homes. The price they agreed to is proprietary, but described by both parties as similar to ground-based solar. And there is no risk in this deal for PG and E, says Marshall.
Mr. MARSHALL: We're paying only for the energy if and when it's delivered. If they don't deliver, we don't pay.
JAFFE: But even if Solaren can successfully deliver power, it may not be able to deliver for its investors, says Severin Borenstein, co-director of the Energy Institute at the UC-Berkeley School of Business.
Mr. SEVERIN BORENSTEIN (Co-Director, Energy Institute, UC-Berkeley School of Business): It seems pretty clear that, technologically, one can put solar panels in space and beam the power back to earth. The question is whether Solaren can do it cost effectively.
JAFFE: But by the year 2020, all California utilities will be required to produce a third of their power with renewable sources of energy. That's about double what they have right now.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
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