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Thursday, August 20, 2009

DOE smacks down Space Solar to Fund Hot Parking Lots

(by Tyler Burton, crossposted from the Breakthrough Institute blog)

The ARPA-E initiative is a project of the Department of Energy, its purpose is to fund "high-risk, high-payoff transformational R&D ... that can enhance the economic and energy security of the United States through reductions of imports of energy from foreign sources, etc." (more here)

Funded with money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, one would think that ARPA-E, being a semantic cousin of the Pentagon's well-known DARPA division, famous for its assisted walking suits, robotic espionage dragonflys and, of course, the internet, would have a slew of strange projects on their roster. However, one scientist, whose rejected space based solar program requested a modest $2 million dollars for further testing, feels the DOE's selection process was a bit lopsided.

Senior Breakthrough Fellow and Professor Emeritus of Physics at NYU, Martin Hoffert, has long made the case for space-based solar power as an alternative to earth-moored models. Up beyond the filters of pollution and the limits of daylight, the sun's energy is nearly constant and undiffused. Using solar panels affixed to a satellite or, say, the International Space Station, the idea would be to beam the energy back to terrestrial sources in the form of microwaves or some other heretofore undiscovered method.

Hoffert even has the PR effort down pat, as he explains in a segment for Clean Skies TV: "We've spent a fortune on the International Space Station, and people are still saying, 'What have we got from it?' Well, we could probably beam power from the International Space Station to various locations along its ground track, including some in developing countries that have no prospect of getting energy."

Now that certainly sounds "transformational"; and for $2 million dollars it's a no-brainer, right? But out of the 3500 applications the ARPA-E program received, only 40 - 60 (roughly 1.1%) will receive funding of between $3 to $5 million dollars. While Hoffert's program got the snub, in the approved pile is a project that aims to capture the heat trapped in asphalt parking lots and other paved surfaces via a series of tubes filled with water.

On his Dot Earth blog, NY Times science reporter, Andy Revkin, asks the $2 million dollar question: "Which project strikes you as more 'transformational'?"

Solaren gets the nod from PG&E, Hoffert gets the snub...

Not only is Hoffert's query more transformational, it is also supported by big industry. When news broke this April that California's biggest energy utility, PG&E, had signed on with Solaren, a manufacturer of solar cells, to potentially capture and beam back to earth 200 megawatts of electricity from solar power stations orbiting the earth, can you guess who wasn't too surprised to hear the news?

PG&E have contributed no money to the project as of yet, but have promised to buy the energy back from Solaren at an undisclosed, but roughly equivalent rate to the current market prices of other renewables.

"Solaren would generate the power using solar panels in Earth orbit and convert it to radio-frequency transmissions that would be beamed down to a receiving station in Fresno, PG&E said. From there, the energy would be converted into electricity and fed into PG&E's power grid." (via MSNBC)

The Solaren plan puts together some more of the specifics about how they plan to get the satellites into space via private deployment vehicles, which makes sense given that most of its employees are former aerospace engineers, but it makes no mention of using methods other than those that Hoffert and his son, through their company, Versatility Energy, have long pioneered to beam the wattage back to terra firma.

So it would seem that with a major utility taking the time to put its public stamp of commitment upon a technology, that the development of the above-mentioned "undiscovered methods" would merit at least a couple million dollars study in the meantime, particularly if the results might further the adoption of a potentially limitless resource. Then again, maybe ARPA-E's focus is on something a bit more pedestrian.

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