Robert Fishman spent the last seven years managing power plants for natural gas company Calpine (CPNLQ). Now he’s stoked on solar — last week he became the new CEO for solar thermal start-up Ausra. Ausra builds solar thermal systems that use mirrors and lenses to focus sunlight onto liquid-filled tubes, which in turn power steam turbines, and recently raised a round of over $40 million in financing from Khosla Ventures and Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers.
We chatted with Fishman about why he made the switch to the solar industry and why cost of the system is so important.
Q: There’s a few different design models out there for solar thermal technology. Why is your technology better than the one designed by Solel or other solar thermal startups?
A: Our philosophy is that you need to drive down the cost of the system in order for it to be economically competitive. Rather than having sophisticated, hard-to-manufacture mirrors, our mirrors are slightly curved and cheaper to manufacture. We make this thing really simple and low cost.
Q: So are you saying your mirrors are less efficient than your competition? How is that a good thing?
A: We believe driving down the cost may be more important than getting the highest efficiency. Keep in mind our energy source is free. We don’t have to be the most efficient, we just have to have the economics of the way we collect it be the most efficient. Our efficiency is a little lower, but I would venture a guess that on a net basis, we’re between 10 and 30 percent more cost effective. Efficiency by itself doesn’t mean anything. What matters in the end is total cost per kilowatt.
Q: You’ve been working for a natural gas company for a while now, why the career switch to a focus on solar thermal?
A: I’ve spent most of my career in development, engineering, and construction of power plants. That’s basically what Ausra’s business is going to be, with the added twist that it’s also a renewable energy company. Fundamentally the challenge for Ausra is one of execution, getting contracts with utilities and developing the facilities. I also had done some solar thermal work back in the 1980s, when I was an engineer with Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB).
Q: Ausra is working on plants in California, can you give us any more details on this?
A: We plan to build numerous plants in California. One is in the advanced development stage. When we finish all our studies we’ll be filing application with the California Energy Commission to get permission to build it. We’re looking at plants in 100-500 megawatt size range, which is pretty comparable to existing utility plants.
Q: What are challenges for Ausra?
A: It’s a question of really deploying it on a large scale. That was one of the issues with solar thermal in the 80s – they were smaller plants, and you weren’t able to get economy of scale and drive the cost down.