Space-Based Solar? That's Just Silly

When The Motley Fool returned its bailout funds on April 2, I thought that was the end of April Fool's. Since then, I've repeatedly had to check my calendar.

First there was the unveiling of the PUMA, the General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) /Segway-prototyped vehicle that looks like a wheelchair with a windshield. Furthering the funhouse atmosphere was the pre-announcement by Wells Fargo of a record quarter, just weeks after the zombification of the financial sector seemed like a best-case scenario.

Maybe the nuttiest news yet is the announcement by West Coast utility PG&E (NYSE: PCG  ) that it's seeking a 200-megawatt power purchase agreement (PPA) with Solaren, one of countless Californian solar startups. The bizarre twist is that Solaren is seeking to beam solar power from satellites in outer space. While this concept has been kicked around at NASA off and on for decades, the technology has never been proven. If approved, the deal would give Solaren until mid-2016 to get its space-based ducks in a row.

As far as technology commercialization timelines go, space-based solar is likely somewhat ahead of nuclear fusion powered by a rare fuel that's mined on the moon. But it's still a stretch, given the enormous cost of getting the requisite amount of material into orbit. We're not talking about a small Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) satellite, generating its own power with multi-junction solar cells. A pretty massive array would be required to fire enough radio frequency waves down to Fresno.

Given that a PPA only requires the utility to pay for energy delivered, I guess PG&E doesn't risk much here, other than its reputation. Still, I can't help but be concerned that this far-out application diverts regulatory attention from more pressing applications by proven solar operators like SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA  ) (Nasdaq: SPWRB  ) and First Solar (NYSE: FSLR  ) , not to mention all the startups that are seriously struggling.

I definitely see the appeal of baseload solar power that's impervious to nighttime. Given the huge up-front costs involved, though, I have a hard time seeing space-based solar edging out geothermal as a renewable baseload generation solution anytime soon. Utilities, the main lifeline in the solar space today, ought to keep their PPAs more practical than this.

SunPower slightly edges out First Solar among Motley Fool CAPS participants, with three stars to the latter firm's two. Rescue First Solar from stock pickers' purgatory with a bullish pitch right here.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his CAPS profile, or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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