Silicon Valley startup Ausra fired up a five-megawatt solar power plant outside Bakersfield Thursday, the first big solar station to go online in California in nearly two decades.
Ausra has a 20-year contract with utility PG&E (PCG) for a 177-megawatt solar power plant to be built some 70 miles away on the Carrizo Plains in San Luis Obispo County. But like competitors who also aim to sell solar technology untried on a large scale, Ausra constructed the demo plant, called Kimberlina, as a proof of concept for investors who will have to be persuaded in these tight times to pony up half a billion dollars or more in project financing. “It’s important because this is the technology banks’ engineers want to see so they’re comfortable recommending financing for the Carrizo Plains site,” Ausra CEO Robert Fishman told Green Wombat.
At Kimberlina’s unveiling Thursday, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee warned against letting the financial crisis derail the fight against global warming. “The capital markets are going to distinguish between high-risk projects and low-risk projects and the high-risk projects are not going to get financed in the future,” he said. “PG&E stands ready to take on the challenge of financing renewables.”
While Ausra built Kimberlina to show that its compact linear fresnel reflector technology can generate utility-scale electricity, the plant is also designed to demonstrate that solar tech can be deployed for other industrial uses. At heart, a solar thermal power plant is a steam machine. In Ausra’s case, long rows of flat mirrors that sit low to the ground. concentrate sunlight on water-filled pipes that hang over the mirrors to create steam. That drives an electricity-generating turbine, but Ausra and other companies are looking to sell the steam as well.
For instance, take a drive around Bakersfield and you’d think you were in Texas, what with all the oil rigs rocking back and forth across a treeless landscape. Bakersfield oil is thick and heavy, so steam is injected into the ground to make it flow. Fishman wants oil companies to stop burning expensive natural gas to boil water and start using the sun.
“We’ve been doing a lot of show and tell,” says Fishman, referring to the Kimberlina plant, which sits just off the Bakersfield oil patch’s main highway. “If you look at putting a solar generator in, the economics look pretty good.”
Each 1,000-foot row, or line, of Ausra mirrors generates six megawatts of heat, according to Fishman, who says the company has talked to potential clients who would need anywhere between five and 50 lines.
Ausra also is exploring other markets for its steam technology, such as food processing.
Rival power plant builder eSolar, the Pasadena startup incubated by Bill Gross’ Idealab and funded in part by Google (GOOG), also sees other markets for its green tech. Last month, eSolar, which has a contact to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of electricity, licensed its technology to stealth renewable fuels startup Sundrop, based in Pojoaque, N.M., north of Santa Fe.
Sundrop CEO John Stevens will say little about the Kleiner Perkins-backed company’s plans. “Sundrop uses low-cost concentrated solar energy to drive renewable energy into fuels,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We will produce low-cost renewable fuels. We expect to be demonstrating scale production in 2009-2010.”
eSolar CEO Asif Ansari told Green Wombat his company will provide fields of mirrors called heliostats to Sundrop along with software and control systems to concentrate the sun’s rays on a tower. (Venture Beat uncovered documents that indicates Sundrop may plan to produce hydrogen and other fuels.)
“Basically, we’re a technology company; we don’t want to be in the construction business,” says Ansari. “What we really are trying to develop here is a standard global platform for delivering concentrated solar energy to any target that can be used for a variety of applications.”
Besides using solar energy to produce such fuels as hydrogen, Ansari, like Ausra, sees the oil industry as a potential market. He says the food processing and fertilizer industries also could substitute eSolar’s technology for natural gas to make steam.
Back in Bakersfield, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger presided over the official opening of Ausra’s Kimberlina solar plant on Thursday. (Live streaming his appearance.) “California is going green and it’s going green really fast,” the governator said before an audience that included PG&E chief executive Peter Darbee and Silicon Valley venture capitalists Ray Lane and Vinod Khosla.
The solar power station is plugged into the grid and will supply PG&E with enough electricity to power about 3,500 homes in central California. The mirror arrays were made at Ausra’s robotic factory in Las Vegas.
“This represents the best of American and Australian ingenuity and get-it-done attitude,” said Fishman at the ceremony, referring to Ausra’s roots in Sydney. “People don’t need to think of Ausra as an alternative energy company. As of today it is simply an energy company.”
Schwarzenegger gave the signal and Kimberlina officially came online, the 1,000-foot-long mirror arrays rotating toward the sun.