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Energy’s final frontier?

Mrinalini Reddy |

For Peter Sage, the sky isn’t really the limit. It’s even higher, somewhere around 36,000 kilometres above the Earth’s atmosphere.

An entrepreneur with twenty years’ experience, Sage’s latest start-up venture, Space Energy, aims to deliver space-based solar power (SBSP) by collecting and transmitting energy using satellites positioned in space. The catchall: energy on demand, 24 hours a day.

Why now? “The challenge has always been economics, closing the business plan and the business case and making that work and having the underpinnings of profitability,” says Sage, one of Space Energy’s co-founders. “It’s only going to happen if you get serious cash on the table. Scientists that have tried to get this funded in the past with a passion for knowing that it can be done have always fallen short.”

The concept has been around for decades – in fact, the idea of solar cells in space was pioneered in the late ‘60s by American scientist Peter Glaser. Essentially, a large solar satellite fitted with collectors -- photovoltaic panels in Space Energy’s endeavour -- would use radiowave beams to transmit energy to receiving grids (or antennas) on Earth that would eventually feed into a power grid to provide electricity. The basic principle is already in use with communication satellites routinely transmitting radiowave signals to connect cell phones, wireless internet or cordless phone signals, for instance.

Space Energy’s mission -- and that of Sage -- is to connect the dots between the scientists, the manufacturers, the investors, essentially coordinate the efforts between all parties involved. Advances in technology -- with photovoltaic cells becoming lighter, cheaper and more efficient, as well as improved satellite technology and safer, reliable space transportation -- have all made this renewable energy source increasingly viable. “We are dealing with an inevitable technology,” says Sage. “The time in history is converging at this point to support clean tech and clean energy on every political table.”

In its ongoing first phase, Sage’s team is working towards creating and launching a prototype satellite into orbit to demonstrate viability. A successful operation on all fronts will qualify Space Energy’s full-fledged jump to larger-scale, commercial satellite. The company is simultaneously developing a ground-based solar business to support its space development efforts. “That gives investors comfort because it’s a traditional technology,” explains Sage. “They get a good return on investment and at the same time they helps fund a space project that has a huge equity kicker.”

Challenges abound as the proposal involves obtaining regulatory permits and approvals from numerous governments and international agencies, improving launch capabilities, assembling a massive satellite in space, alongside the concerns of managing costs and deadlines. However, there have been some encouraging developments: a long-range wireless power transmission was successfully conducted in mid-2008 between two Hawaiian islands some 148 kilometers miles apart, more than the distance from the surface of the Earth to the boundary of space. Not quite the distance to geosynchronous orbit but still a notable advance.

With interest in renewable energy at an all-time high, venture capital investments in clean-tech firms in North America, Europe, China and India hit four billion dollars in the first half of 2010, according to a preliminary research report by Cleantech Group and Deloitte. The solar sector made up around 40 per cent of second quarter investments, scoring $811 million in venture investment. In an annual report by policy group REN21, renewables delivered 18 percent of global electric supply in 2009. Total investment in renewable energy capacity (excluding large hydro) was $150 billion in 2009, a more than six-fold jump from the $20 billion invested in 2004.

When, or indeed if, Space Energy will accomplish its goals is hard to predict. But for Peter Sage, this mission captures the essence of entrepreneurship. “It’s being able to take an idea, see a gap in the market or respond to a challenge and find a creative way to be able to bring that to market in a profitable fashion that adds value and serves a purpose.”

This article was written by Mrinalini Reddy based on an interview for INSEAD Knowledge.

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