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Solar thermal company Ausra christens huge plant

Betting on utilities moving to concentrated solar power in a big way, start-up Ausra to construct Las Vegas factory.

Solar thermal company Ausra will cut the ribbon on a large factory in anticipation of a construction boom in solar power plants in the Southwest United States.

Flanked by government officials, Ausra executives are scheduled to dedicate a 130,000-square-foot facility capable of turning out enough thermal collectors to generate 200 megawatts every month. That translates into about 70 megawatts of electricity capacity per month, according to the company.

Ausra Las Vegas solar thermal factory will use an automated assembly line. Ausra

At that rate, the plant will be be able to manufacture enough electricity capacity to power half a million homes per year year at equivalent prices to gas-fired power plants, said John O'Donnell, the company's executive vice president.

"It will more than double the worldwide solar thermal system output," he said. "We're investing in this factory capacity now because we are seeing explosive demand from utilities."

Solar thermal plants use thousands of mirrored troughs or glass panes to heat a liquid that makes steam. The steam turns a turbine to make electricity.

The technology has emerged as one of the most cost-effective forms of utility-scale renewable power when built in desert areas.

The Ausra plant, set to go online next April, will build the material for a 177-megawatt plant that Pacific Gas & Electric intends to construct in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.

Many more solar thermal plants, also called concentrated solar power, are expected in the Southwest and in Spain.

There are 5,800 megawatts' worth of concentrated solar power projects in the planning stages worldwide, according to Emerging Energy Research. It anticipates the potential investment to go up to $20 billion of the next five years.

Ausra said that its product design has lower manufacturing costs and thus, a lower cost per kilowatt for utilities. It uses less steel than mirrored troughs and standard components like architectural glass, so it doesn't need to rely on specialized suppliers, O'Donnell said.