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Beaming green energy down from space: crazy, or the final frontier?

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Shanta Barley | 11:17 UK time, Tuesday, 19 May 2009

A US start-up called Solaren Corp is planning on beaming the Sun's energy down to Earth from outer space using radio waves, according to the Los Angeles Times.

satellite226x226.jpgIt sounds like something out of the latest Star Trek movie, but Solaren already has a contract with California energy giant Pacific Gas & Electric and aims to start delivering by 2016. The theory goes that space-based solar panels will be bathed in constant, fierce sunshine, unaffected by the clouds, smog and storms that would normally weaken the sunlight reaching the surface by about 10 times.

In fact, covering a 1km wide band around the equator with orbiting solar panels could generate more energy in a single year than we have left in all the known oil reserves on Earth, according to the National Security Space Office report 'Space-Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security'.

But is it green? Very. It's 60 times less carbon-intensive than coal power and it even beats nuclear energy in terms of emissions. What's more, arable land can be used both to grow food and to generate space electricity (unlike the conventional solar plant in the Mojave desert we reported on in March) because the beam receivers let 90% of the sunlight which hits them pass straight through.

Of course, no one said launching a 3,000 megatonne batch of solar panels several kilometers in width ('expensive, flashy and unproven technology', according to critics) into a space debris-strewn orbit 42,000 km up would be easy or imminently doable.

Or popular. Presumably directing scorching beams of energy at Earth can backfire when the beams fall into the wrong hands? (As anyone who has seen Austin Powers can tell you.) Not so, says the National Security Space Office: not only will the beam's warmth be cosy 'comparable to the heating one might feel if sitting some distance from a campfire'), but 'the likelihood of the beam wandering over a city is extremely low, and even if occurring would be extremely anti-climactic.'

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