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A little bit of desert to light up the entire U.S.

It won't take the entire state of Arizona to provide the real estate for solar, says the CEO of Ausra.


DAVIS, Calif.--Ausra CEO Peter Le Lievre says it will only take a little bit of desert to light up the United States.

Ausra has developed technology for converting heat from the sun into electricity. The trick is that it's far more efficient, the company claims, than traditional technologies from companies such as Solel and Acciona.

The process works as follows: Water goes into a tube that sits over an array of flat mirrors in the desert. By the time it gets to the end of the tube, the water turns to steam, which then turns a generator. Ausra can use water, rather than oil like other companies, because its tube can withstand high pressures. You can read more about Ausra here, including the $40 million the company got.

Solar thermal

Le Lievre told an audience at the Going Green conference that a 92-mile square (92 miles a side, which works out to be a little less than 8,500 square miles) in the desert--a very small amount--could provide all of the electricity in the country. "We are more than two times more efficient when it comes to land," he said. Update: We originally gave the wrong dimensions for that land area. The numbers are now correct.

Ausra's system is also cheaper, he claims. "We are at 10 cents a kilowatt hour today," he said. With mass manufacturing, we will fall below gas (natural gas plants) and beat coal."

Those are big words. Solar thermal now costs about twice as much as regular electricity. Regular electricity goes for around 5 to 8 cents a kilowatt hour.

Ausra will have a chance to prove its case. The company, which wants to build a 175-megawatt plant in California that would take up a square mile, is getting the permits now and hopes to have it operating in three years.