Canary Media Newsletter: Solar in Space, Solar on the Ground, Solar on the Radio

By Julian Spector, Canary Media


When we launched Canary Media in April, we had a sense that folks were hankering for more clean energy content in their media diets.

But I didn’t foresee a track called ​“Solar Power” contending for Song of the Summer, just as the vaccinated masses get back to moving and grooving in public.

New Zealand’s pop superstar Lorde delivered last week, after four years since her last album. Her single ​“Solar Power” is already approaching 9 million views on YouTube and 11 million streams on Spotify. The beachy tune moves from gently strummed guitar to a soaring, solar-powered chorus.

And as my colleague Mike Munsell points out, Canary yellow is just very on trend right now.

We’ve also seen solar power making waves outside of the music world. One is an effort to beam solar power down from outer space, and the other is to make solar power cheaper by just laying it on the ground.

Solar in Space!
The concept is alluring: What if you could harness solar power in a place where the sun never sets and clouds never block the rays?

That place exists, it’s just outside of our atmosphere. A new mission from Caltech seeks to prove that a solar panel could self-deploy in space and then transmit power wirelessly, Jason Deign reports.

For how sci-fi this sounds, what I found most surprising is that the underlying science is pretty much done.

We know how to operate solar panels in space.

We know we can beam energy from space via electromagnetic microwaves, which would be captured by special antennas and converted back to direct current electricity.

The primary challenge is banal: The cost of shipping the necessary equipment into space is way too expensive. There’s also execution risk around unfolding and connecting massive arrays once they’re up there.

This caveat isn’t much different from saying, ​“We can totally build more nuclear plants — we just need to figure out the financing.” Science is one thing; developing economically competitive projects in an era of cheap renewables is another.

Indeed, 24/7 space solar would be competing more with nuclear as a zero-carbon baseload power than it would with fields of solar panels. And if that’s the competitor to beat, well, there may be hope for space solar.

Fields of Solar Panels, Without all that Other Stuff
Also on Canary Media, we have news that could make those terrestrial fields of solar panels even cheaper than they already are.

Large solar projects involve a fair amount of construction work to prepare the site and mount the solar modules on steel racks and trackers, which follow the sun. Solar racking and trackers are now a $3 billion market.

But newly unstealthed startup Erthos rejects the conventional wisdom and simply places solar panels on the ground, Eric Wesoff reports.

By eliminating ​“a tremendous amount of unnecessary materials and risks,” Erthos claims it can build a solar power plant in half the time for nearly half the cost on a third of the land, all while using 70 percent less cable and trenching. To be clear, a solar array will produce more power if it can follow the sun throughout the day. Erthos is betting it can build solar plants so cheaply that it’s affordable to just build more, rather than investing in equipment to get the most production out of a site.

It’s a provocative argument, and indicative of how cheap solar panels are now.

Hardware costs dropped rapidly over the last decade, but the declines are slowing. To keep making solar cheaper, entrepreneurs are looking at other cost drivers. Erthos focused on the equipment to hold the modules, as well as the related installation and permitting work.

Take a look at Erthos’ pitch and let us know if you buy it.


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