Ausra La Vista, Baby

Expatriate Australian solar power company Ausra was one of the companies that featured heavily in my post on concentrating solar thermal power earlier in the year.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has opened Ausra's first plant, a 5 MW CSP plant at Kimberlina in central California (the first to open in 20 years) which will generate enough electricity during peak hours to power 3,500 homes. Ausra's next plant will be a 177 MW plant nearby in San Luis Obispo County.

The SMH quoted Schwarzenegger as saying "This next generation solar power plant is further evidence that reliable, renewable and pollution-free technology is here to stay, and it will lead to more California homes and businesses powered by sunshine. Not only will this large-scale solar facility generate power to help us meet our renewable energy goals, it will also generate new jobs as California continues to pioneer clean-tech industry".

Competitor Brightsource (backed by Google, Chevron and Goldman Sachs) is building a number of similar installations that will total of 900MW, leading the way in a real estate boom in the Mojave desert.

VentureBeat points out that not all new plants will be in the larger size ranges, noting that companies like eSolar and Sopogy are looking at (relatively) small-scale solar thermal plants to generate steam for industrial processes. VentureBeat also notes the financial situation hasn't impacted existing plans for new CSP plants.

For the moment, it doesn’t look like the credit crunch is delaying plans for larger, utility-scale deployments of 50MW and upward, at least according to what company execs have told me. Most plants haven’t yet begun construction, and can spend time locating funding sources during permitting, while others have already secured debt or equity money to build. However, an extended recession could trim the number of plants that go online over the next four to five years.

The Australian reports that Ausra is lobbying the Australian government to introduce a feed in tariff which would allow the company to compete in the local electricity market.

Ausra Australia CEO Bob Matthews said the cost of the company's technology was on par with gas-powered electricity generation in the US, where tariff incentives made renewable energy power production attractive. Mr Matthews has been lobbying government in Australia to introduce a feed-in tariff for renewable energy operators where they are given a guaranteed premium over the market rate for electricity.

"I have inquiries for projects equal to thousands of megawatts around Australia,' said Mr Matthews. "But other than the coal-fired projects and some off-grid applications I can't compete right now with black energy and there's no incentives in the system to level the playing field." While Ausra is based in the US and received first-round funding from US venture capitalists, its founder is expat solar energy pioneer David Mills. Part of the firm's $US60.6 million second-round funding package comes from local venture capitalist Starfish Ventures.

Cross-posted from Peak Energy.

Bring it on. CSP is the way of the future, for Oz and several other countries.

It's largely a manufacturing process, so it can be scaled up easily. There's not much competition for the type of land they need in remote areas, so planning and approvals should be straightforward. Half the power plant is the same steam turbines used by the existing power generation industry, so we already have that in hand, and the hot fluids lend themselves to cheaper and easier thermal energy storage than some other renewables once CSP has scaled up to the point where that becomes necessary.

Greens Senator Christine Milne initiated a Senate inquiry into a feed-in tariff which has apparently been overwhelmed with nearly 100% positive submissions. How can the Government not implement one now? (easily, unfortanately)

The only real barrier in Oz is the cost of building new transmission capacity (the US has some additional problems with national parks covering some of the best desert acreage).

But if people are willing to build new transmission for CSG (coal seam gas) plants, they should be even more willing to build it for CSP plants.

So "The Governator" is on the right track.

Here in Oz, unfortunately our Government emphasis is still essentially on symbolism, subsidising individual rooftop panels while CSP offers far greater efficiency.

Your Australian mandatory renewable energy target (MRET) scheme might be a useful incentive for new transmission buildouts, as some low solar or wind resource areas (read: grids) won't be able to meet the MRET cost-effectively without importing solar or wind, making new infrastructure investments not only economically justified, but also purely financially (which is a more narrow and difficult criterion).

It's good to see Ausra make advancements. Things are going a bit slower than I'd hoped, though. Do you have any more information about their developments on type of thermal storage, and timelines? It doesn't appear that the larger 177 MWe plant will incorporate storage, in fact it looks like just another transitional pilot. I hope they stick to pressurized water storage, looks best overall, for now.

I haven't heard anything about storage foir a while.

GreentechMedia noted how cagey they are being and was speculating about using concrete.

There was another article in the Hun recently talking about some of their local marketing efforts :

Like the prodigal son, he returned Down Under recently as Ausra chairman to hawk a "Big Solar" project to eastern seaboard politicians, and perhaps shore up Starfish Ventures support. Starfish Ventures investor director Aaron Fyke told BNW yesterday that this time he was not going to let Dr Mills walk away without tipping some loot into his pockets. "We approached Ausra before they went looking for US funds, but at that stage we didn't have the mandate to invest in clean technology, even though we were interested," Mr Fyke said.

Starfish Ventures finally got the mandate, through a $20 million injection from VicSuper, but it was too late. Just months earlier Ausra had already done a seed funding deal with Vinod Khosla, founding chief executive of Sun Microsystems. Starfish Ventures had to wait more than a year before another opportunity to buy into Ausra. The latest raising was led by Canadian company KERN Energy Partners and includes Britain's Generation Investment as well as the Khosla and Kleiner outfits.

Mr Fyke would not reveal Starfish Ventures stake, for which it has secured equity in Ausra, but it is believed to be about $10 million. Ironically, Dr Mills would have needed just half that amount a couple of years ago to set up shop in Australia. But California called and now Ausra has begun building a small solar thermal installation there. It will be the blueprint for a larger 177-megawatt plant Ausra has already been commissioned to install for Pacific Gas and Electric Company, also in California. But the end-game is much vaster than that.

Ausra is believed to have briefed our politicians on a proposal to supply three states with peak solar energy from an installation at Moree in northern NSW. The plan to supply reliable annual power for Victoria, NSW and Queensland would become feasible with the development of storage technology in the not-too-distant future. But for the present, Dr Mills' technology is ready to replace diesel fuelled power plants at remote mining sites and he is expected to sign numerous deals to this effect with resources companies in coming weeks.

BNW has also learned that Ausra has received lead inquiries for about 4500 megawatts worth of other projects, some of which are in advanced talks. But the potential that has captured Starfish Ventures interest the most is based on an existing Ausra plant that is piggybacking on capital already invested in the Liddell coal-fired generator in NSW. The solar plant preheats water used by the generator's boilers, reducing the amount of coal that needs to be burnt to produce electricity.