Ausra's Las Vegas solar thermal plant comes online

The desert factory is supposed to make enough solar equipment to power the equivalent of nearly half a million homes.

Solar thermal company Ausra on Monday opened a Las Vegas factory meant to produce enough equipment each year to provide 700 megawatts of power.

The 130,000-square-foot facility is designed to manufacture massive mirrors and absorber tubes, employing 50 workers and leading to the creation of 1,400 construction jobs at solar sites.

Ausra makes utility-scale solar equipment that it says costs 30 percent to 40 percent less than photovoltaics . Its compact fresnel reflectors use relatively small amounts of steel and the same kind of glass used in building construction, according to Ausra.

"We're ready to respond now with a clean, reliable, and cost-competitive energy choice that will be an economic development machine for the country," Ausra CEO Robert Fishman said in a statement. Developers in southern Nevada are planning more than $50 billion worth of solar installations, he added.

Ausra's solar thermal reflectors at an Australian plant are near the bottom of this image.
Ausra's solar thermal reflectors at an Australian plant are near the bottom of this image. Ausra

Companies seeking to install giant solar farms (click here for photos) are targeting the sunny southwestern United States and southern California.

"This facility will help position our state as the premiere place to invest in these new technologies," Nevada Sen. Harry Reid said in a statement.

Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base features a 14-megawatt solar plant .

Ausra and Pacific Gas and Electric unveiled a power purchase agreement last fall for a 177-megawatt solar thermal power plant for California meant to provide enough power for some 120,000 homes.

Funders of Ausra include Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. The company started in Australia but now has headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., and has declared the aim to go public by 2010.

Unlike photovoltaics, which convert light energy to electricity, solar thermal systems harness thermal energy. With Ausra's technology, solar heat from compact Fresnel reflectors boils water in pipes, creating steam. The steam turns a steam turbine, generating electricity that's supposed to be competitive with prices from natural gas power plants.

There's no shortage of competition among solar-thermal start-ups.

eSolar, based in Pasadena, Calif., said on June 3 it will build 245 megawatts' worth of plants for Southern California Edison.

Schott, of Germany, inaugurated a factory near Seville, Spain in May, and broke ground for a plant in New Mexico in March.

BrightSource, based in Oakland, Calif., contracted with PG&E in March to build 500 megawatts of solar thermal equipment for California.

Israel's Solel announced in May two contracts to supply solar receivers for 11 Spanish power plants set to provide a total of 500 megawatts.

In Hawaii, Sopogy is experimenting with rooftop-ready, micro-solar thermal installations.

 

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