LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The world’s largest nuclear plant builder, Areva SA, is diversifying into solar power with the aim of becoming an industry leader, as it acquires U.S.-based solar thermal player Ausra, the company said on Monday.
“This market is set to have 20 gigawatts by the year 2020. Areva has an objective to be a world leader in solar energy” by 2012, said Anil Srivastava, senior executive vice president of Areva’s renewable energies business group.
Financial details were not disclosed in the purchase of Ausra, a Silicon Valley company which had raised $130 million in venture capital from high-profile firms including Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures.
The purchase marks Areva’s first foray into solar energy.
Areva chose solar thermal technology — which uses the sun’s heat to create steam to run turbines for electricity — over other solar power options because it is “the closest” to nuclear plants, Srivastava told Reuters in an interview.
The solar power industry has started to consolidate after struggling in 2009 with a dearth of financing for new projects and a steep fall in prices. Other solar thermal players include Spain’s Abengoa SA and privately held U.S.-based BrightSource Energy Inc.
Still, companies such as U.S.-based First Solar Inc and China’s Suntech Power this year expect a rise in demand for panels that convert sunlight to electricity. The nuclear industry is aiming for a renaissance as concerns about greenhouse gases mount. U.S. President Barack Obama proposed an extra $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear energy in the new U.S. budget.
Simmons & Co analyst Burt Chao said that teaming up traditional energy and renewable firms makes sense.
“As solar especially goes toward more of an energy story, it certainly makes sense for energy focused companies to start looking at solar,” Chao said. “You will probably see more and more energy companies buying up or partnering with these other solar companies.”
Areva plans to run its solar business out of Ausra’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and expand its 70-strong workforce to 120 people worldwide.
The group plans to build concentrated solar power plants for utilities, independent power producers and industrial companies in the southwestern United States, Middle East, Europe, South Africa and ultimately other parts of the world.
Ausra Chief Executive Robert Fishman said in an interview that costs run between $3 and $3.50 per watt to build solar projects with its technology.
Fishman said the group will target two key markets: impendent power plants and adding solar projects to existing coal and natural gas-fired plants.
The acquisition is expected to close in the next few months, subject to regulatory approval.
Reporting by Laura Isensee; Editing by Braden Reddall, Andre Grenon and Richard Chang