| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Oct 23 Solar thermal power
developer Ausra Inc on Thursday opened a 5-megawatt
demonstration plant in California that it says will prove it
can deliver on its promise of providing clean energy cheaply.
Ausra, the first to erect a solar thermal plant in
California in nearly 20 years, is among a handful of so-called
concentrating solar power (CSP) developers that say they will
deliver utility-sized solar plants in the next three to five
years that will be able to sell power at prices comparable to
dirtier natural gas- and coal-fired plants.
"A lot (of companies) make a lot of claims of things
they're going to do," Chief Executive Bob Fishman said in a
telephone interview. "We're putting power on the grid."
Solar thermal developers like privately held Ausra say that
while CSP is dwarfed by photovoltaic solar panels in generating
electricity, solar thermal technology allows large plants that
compete with conventional generation.
The new plant in Bakersfield, which the company says can
power about 3,500 homes, brings Ausra's total output at two
plants to only 7 MW. But Ausra and its backers, led by venture
capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, are hoping the
company will build dozens of big plants by 2020.
Ausra already has one in the works -- a 177-MW project it
is building for California utility PG&E (PCG.N).
Ausra's system is relatively simple. Long mirrors
concentrate the sun's light onto water-filled tubes that are
then superheated to create steam that turns a turbine.
Four months ago, Ausra opened a manufacturing plant in Las
Vegas, Nevada to make components for its systems. Palo Alto,
California-based Ausra plans to make 100 to 200 megawatts worth
of solar components annually in Las Vegas, and can ramp that up
quickly if demand rises. The main limit on Ausra's growth will
be a backlog of orders for turbines, Fishman said.
SUNSHINE DURING A CREDIT CRISIS
With the credit crisis threatening to curtail access to
financing, even for companies in the high-flying solar sector,
Ausra said it isn't hurting for project money -- for now.
"We're good well into next year," Fishman said, adding that
the company would need to secure financing for two
yet-to-be-announced large projects in the second half of 2009.
"I hope things simmer down" by the time of those financing
efforts, he said, adding that Ausra is in a better position
than many emerging companies because "project finance markets
secured by power purchase agreements with credit-worthy
companies will come back before general unsecured debt."
In addition, a new eight-year federal subsidy for solar
power allows investor-owned utilities to claim a 30 percent tax
credit for solar projects, which Fishman says will lead many
utilities to own solar plants rather than simply buy the
Utilities, with their easier access to the capital markets,
may find it more favorable to have companies like Ausra build
the plants and then buy them, Fishman said.
Until utility companies begin ordering large-scale solar
plants, Fishman said, Ausra will strive to sign pacts for
smaller-scale plants for making steam for natural gas power
plants and other industrial plants. Fishman said Ausra wants to
sign pacts for four or five of those projects in 2009, totaling
between 100 and 150 megawatts.
"There is a potential that customers will slow down their
orders... which would delay our implementation," Fishman said,
adding that "we have not seen any signs of that."
(Editing by Nichola Groom and Marguerita Choy)