Ausra: Financial Markets Could Effect Utility Solar Projects

Ausra has been one of the most high-profile solar startups to get backing from Silicon Valley, but being funded by cleantech heavyweights Khosla, Kleiner and most recently Al Gore’s investment group doesn’t necessarily shield it from the uncertainty of the financial markets. Like many of its cleantech peers, the company has to consider what it will do if the financial markets don’t calm down over the next year.

If all goes well in the financial markets next year, Ausra’s executive VP and chief commercial officer, Glen Davis, says the company will raise project financing to build a solar plant that could cost between $600 million and $800 million; California utility PG&E has committed to buy the solar power from that plant in a power purchase agreement. Ausra could theoretically start construction on that plant in the second half of next year and have it initially producing power 12 to 15 months later — if everything falls into place. While the current financial downturn won’t necessarily effect the timeline of the project that will sell power to PG&E, raising financing and keeping on schedule could prove difficult depending on the markets, Davis says.

Of course it’s not unusual that startups are bracing for the worst, particularly when hundreds of millions in financing is needed. Already the months of delay by congress to renew the tax credits for clean power, which were passed earlier this month, caused a delay in solar companies’ plant plans. Davis says “most solar contracts had some period of slip with the delay of passing the ITC…. Our timeline was affected.” Pulling together all of the pieces of these solar systems in a commercial scale “is a big task,” he explains.

In the meantime Ausra is already in the process of building a pilot facility, dubbed Kimberlina, near Bakersfield, Calif., which will start producing power before the end of the month. Kimberlina will have four lines of solar thermal equipment installed that will include the companies latest developments for its receivers, its mirror design and accompanying support structures. Ausra also turned on its factory in Las Vegas in June that will produce reflectors and is already selling solar thermal systems to industrial and commercial companies that will use the steam for various purposes.

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