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LAS VEGAS – Hard by the Las Vegas airport, the industrial infrastructure of the solar economy is rising in a former furniture factory. Phalanxes of orange robots swivel and dip as they practice assembling components for solar power plants to be built by Silicon Valley startup Ausra.

It’s North America’s first solar power plant factory and it went online Monday when Ausra CEO Robert Fishman and U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, flipped the switch to start the production line. Ausra’s automated 130,000-square-foot factory is key to the Palo Alto company’s aim of cutting manufacturing costs to make solar energy competitive with fossil fuels.

A large robot picks up 78-square-foot pieces of glass and places them on a conveyor belt so a machine can apply strips of adhesive. Other robots transfer the glass to another line where a dozen bots weld together 53-foot-long steel frames. The completed solar arrays will be trucked to California where Ausra is building a 177-megawatt solar power station for utility PG&E (PCG) on 640 acres of agricultural land in San Luis Obispo County. (To see a video of the robots in action, click here.)

The arrays focus sunlight on water-filled tubes to create steam to drive a turbine. Ausra manufacturing exec David McKay points to where standard-issue boiler pipe will be fed into a machine and treated with a proprietary coating that transforms it into a solar receiver. At peak production the plant will churn out more than 700 megawatts’ worth of equipment year to keep 1,400 solar power plant construction workers employed. “We can produce a lot faster than what we can install,” says McKay.

However, the future of those jobs – and billions in future investments in renewable energy – hangs on whether Congress extends a crucial investment tax credit that the solar industry and utilities are relying on to make large-scale solar power plants competitive with the carbon-spewing variety. The investment tax credit expires at the end of the year and several attempts to pass legislation extending the ITC have failed despite support on both sides of the aisle.

Green Wombat met with the chairman of the Solar Energy Industries Association, Chris O’Brien, last week when he was in San Francisco to get an update on the ITC’s chances. “It’s an election year and it has become part of the political stalemate,” says O’Brien, who heads North America market development and government relations for Swiss-based solar cell equipment maker Oerlikon Solar. “I don’t see an imminent breakthrough.”

The pending demise of the tax credit is “having a significant effect on the development of new business,” according to O’Brien. Solar energy executives, of course, are reluctant to admit that deals are getting dashed, but there’s no doubt the loss of a 30 percent tax credit gives financiers and utilities pause when considering whether to green-light solar power plants that can cost a billion or two to construct.

O’Brien thinks the best-case scenario for the long-term extension of the ITC will come after the presidential election during the lame-duck session of Congress. Otherwise, he says, don’t expect action until around September 2009.

In the meantime, Ausra will keep its robots busy cranking out components for its first California power plant, which is scheduled to start producing green electricity in 2010.

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