Ausra Building Solar Thermal Factory in Vegas

Ausra, the solar thermal startup backed by Kleiner and Khosla, said today it plans to build a 130,000-square-foot plant in Las Vegas that will manufacture and distribute solar thermal gear including reflectors, towers and absorber tubes. The company said the plant, which will employ 50 workers and begin operating in April 2008, is the first of its kind in the U.S.

Solar thermal power technology uses mirrors and lenses to focus sunlight onto liquid-filled tubes that in turn power steam turbines; plants can offer large-scale clean power to utilities. The technology has moved into the spotlight this year as utilities try to boost their percentage of renewable power. According to Emerging Energy Research, solar thermal installations in the U.S. and Spain are expected to surpass a combined 7,500 MW by 2020. Last month, Ausra said PG&E will buy power from a one-square-mile, 177-megawatt power plant, which the company will build in central California — the new manufacturing plant will make the hardware for the PG&E project.

Ausra is one of the more media-friendly solar thermal companies out there, as the firm was partly vetted by Kleiner’s Nobel Peace prize-winning new VC, Al Gore. But it has a lot of competition from firms like BrightSource Energy (a retooled Luz, founded in 2004); Spanish giants Abengoa and Iberdrola; Albuquerque, N.M.-based newcomer SkyFuel (which we profiled this week); Israeli firm Solel; Solar Millennium and Stirling Energy Systems.

Ausra uses Linear Fresnel Reflector (LFR) solar technology, which utilizes nearly flat reflectors that focus the rays onto stationary collectors overhead. SkyFuel is using the same technology to make its next-generation solar gear, but it won’t be available for another three to four years. And while SkyFuel’s technology concentrates sun rays onto molten salt to power turbines, Ausra’s heats water.

Solar thermal technology has gotten so much attention this year that even unlikely players like Google are investing in solar thermal R&D. For the search engine giant’s “Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal” initiative, the company plants to invest hundreds of millions of dollars and will produce a gigawatt of clean energy.

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