Here’s another sign that Big Solar’s time has come: Silicon Valley startup Ausra is building the United States’ first solar power plant factory.
When the 130,000-square-foot facility goes online in April outside Las Vegas, robots will assemble mirror arrays and other equipment that will then be trucked to solar power plant building sites in California and the Southwest. Ausra, backed by venture capitalists Vinod Khosla and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, signed a deal with utility PG&E (PCG) in November to supply electricity generated by a 177-megawatt solar thermal power station to be built on California’s central coast.
“Steel, flat glass and standard boiler pipe flows into the factory and completed solar fields come out ready for installation,” John O’Donnell, Ausra’s executive vice president, told Fortune’s Green Wombat from Nevada over the din of construction noise. “We wound up working with one of Australia’s leading builders of car production systems to develop robotic assembly, weld, bond and paint systems for the mirror units.”
Ausra will deploy large arrays of long mirrors that concentrate sunlight on water-filled pipes that hang over the reflectors. As the water is heated up to 545 degrees Fahrenheit the resulting steam drives a standard turbine to generate electricity. O’Donnell says the Las Vegas factory, located near McCarran International Airport, will employ about 50 people and be able to produce 70 megawatts worth of solar equipment a month — implying Ausra has many more big power deals on the table.
The facility marks the emergence of Nevada as a player in the solar power industry. “We see Nevada as one of the best markets for solar power,” says O’Donnell. “It’s the business climate in Nevada, the solar resource and a rapidly growing market for electric power. The main reason for being here is the combination of a transportation center, a workforce and a central location for where we think all the power plants will be. We looked at locations in California, Phoenix and here. Taking the five-year view, we would like to build a lot of power plants in the Southwest so we asked, ‘Where is the best location. What are the transportation options?’ ”
Nevada’s proximity to California means that solar power plants can be built on its side of the border to ship electricity to densely populated Southern California as well as the booming Las Vegas region. O’Donnell says Nevada offered Ausra a standard package of tax incentives but nothing extra to locate the factory in the Silver State.
“As the world transitions to clean energy, Nevada will be a leader in building and delivering clean power to our state, to our region, and to our country,” said Nevada Development Authority CEO Somer Hollingsworth in a statement.
Nevada will get a run for its money from sun-drenched Arizona, where Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems plans to build factories to manufacture Stirling dishes for solar power plants that will supply electricity to Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE).