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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Beaming Solar Power from Outer Space

Why this is a distraction and you'd be better off investing in energy efficiency and reducing your utility bills.

The large electric and gas utility in California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), has announced it wants the local regulatory agency to approve a deal with a third-party power producer to buy electricity generated from a space-based "solar farm" that would be, in fact, a solar power generation satellite.

The idea is that the contractor would put solar panels in space to generate electricity that would be sent -- via radio waves -- to the the utility's transmission and distribution grid in northern and central California, for use by the utility's customers.

The utility announced that the project would generate enough electricity to meet the needs of 240,000 residential customers. Space-based solar power is expected to be available starting in 2016.

Here's a brief story about it. Here's a more robust article describing the deal in more detail.

Surely, each homeowner in this country could do a much better job than the utility if we take advantage of existing federal and state tax credits and rebates to install solar panels on our rooftops, for exclusive use in our homes?

I assume the estimated cost of launching solar panels into space must be in the several millions of dollars. I assume, also, that the energy-related cost of putting a satellite into space is a big component of the expense -- and so we are looking at making a significant energy investment to install a satellite power station. That does not make sense when more affordable market-tested energy investments are all around us.

Also, the final cost of the electricity being piped into the local grid would be more expensive than the cost of investing in existing technologies that would eliminate inefficient use of power. I have read that the cost to the utility customer of investing in energy efficiency is 2 cents for every kilowatt-hour saved. Today, the average cost of a kilowatt-hour in the United States is 11 cents. PG&E refused to reveal the final cost of the solar-based power -- but surely it will be far more than 2 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Finally, such satellites would probably be vulnerable in times of war, creating an unnecessary level of dependence on a space-based military. By the way, we really don't have a space-based military presence, except in terms of missiles that could shoot down satellites. Solar power stations would require creating a large-scale space-based anti-missile program, another significant investment that seems unnecessary.

This is another PR ploy, designed to get you and me to focus on the utility providing electricity for all of our needs.

This is not the way to true independence. Utility-scale solar-based generation would be great, but only after (1) we've figured out how to build it inexpensively and (2) we've figured out how to store the electricity it generates in a safe and affordable manner for use during those long winter afternoons and evenings.

The best bet is to invest now in your own house and your own independence -- by improving the building's energy efficiency, thereby reducing your dependence on utility-scale generation.

Further, if you can afford to take advantage of current state and local tax credits and rebates for installing your own photovoltaic solar panels, then look into it. A friend of mine is looking into installing a 4-kilowatt rooftop PV system -- for only $1,000 a kilowatt once all credits and rebates have been included. In economic terms, this is considered a very affordable way to use solar power for reducing utility bills.

For more information and for readily available solar power technologies, take a look at this link: Solar Power Resources from Amazon

Here's one book I've just started reading:

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