Many other obstacles stand in the way of commercially viable SBSP. A crucial regulatory matter: getting clearance from the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) that allocates use of the electromagnetic spectrum. SBSP's ideal microwave frequencies are already used by wireless systems such as Bluetooth, according to Smith. "Even if we could narrow the beam [from space] down and ensure complete signal integrity in the broadcast wave area," the ITU may deem the possible interference from SBSP as too disruptive to some extant technologies, he says.
Some think that SBSP efforts should zero in on lasers rather than microwave transmission to avoid this and other confounding issues. "I think an approach using microwaves is doomed," N.Y.U.'s Hoffert says. Given the necessary size of microwave transmitters and their solar arrays, "it's a huge capital investment before you get one kilowatt of power," he adds.
A higher efficiency, laser-based approach would require far smaller satellites and transmitters, perhaps requiring just one launch, Hoffert notes. One proposal involves capturing sunlight in space via photovoltaics, converting the energy into a visible or an infrared laser and then beaming this concentrated light onto existing solar panel arrays in the desert around the clock. Weather can disrupt laser transmissions, however, and Hoffert says other technical hurdles remain for both microwave and laser light approaches.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is covering all bases as Scientific American magazine reported last year. JAXA hopes to have a one-gigawatt satellite in geostationary orbit around 2030 that may use either microwaves or lasers to send its energy back home.
Yet another school of thought involves placing solar-power generators and microwave transmitters on the surface of the moon, or even using a lunar base to construct the satellites before launching them (with relative ease, due to the moon's far weaker gravity) into a geostationary orbit. Many of the raw materials for crafting the satellites could be mined from the moon as well.
If these and other far-flung, future missions ever come to pass, their creators may look back on PG&E's faith this week in Solaren as a key moment in the history of SBSP development, Logan predicts. "If [Solaren] is able to deliver this energy, you're talking about the first time space-based resources have ever been imported to Earth," he says. "It's a significant breakthrough in the awareness of the fact that we're not limited to just the resources on the planet."
Auspiciousness aside, Solaren has a long road ahead of it in terms of raising capital and constructing the first-of-its-kind SBSP operation. Soothing local fears of death rays from space will also take some finessing, Logan admits.
In the end, PG&E has not invested its customers' or shareholders' finances in the deal, says Marshall, the company spokesperson; rather, Solaren is on the hook to deliver the power first. Over 15 years, Solaren has agreed to provide 200 megawatts of electricity almost continuously, enough for a quarter million homes, starting in June 2016.
"Even though PG&E took pains to assure the public they were not investing and that it was only a supply contract, it is still a big step," says CSP's Little. "If another energy supply contract is signed in the near future, I expect interest in space solar will really accelerate."