Struggling nuclear company Areva drops solar division it acquired from startup Ausra

Ausra's tech, image courtesy of Ausra.

French nuclear company Areva hasn’t sold a new nuclear reactor since 2007, and the company has been struggling heavily in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Now via the firm’s earnings on Friday, Reuters reports that Areva says it plans to shut down its solar thermal division, which it acquired from venture capital-backed Valley startup Ausra back in 2010.

Ausra was founded in 2006 and raised at least $130 million from high-profile investors in Silicon Valley including Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, and Al Gore’s Generation Investment. The company developed solar thermal technology, which uses mirrors and lenses to focus sunlight onto liquid-filled tubes, heating up the liquid and powering steam turbines. In contrast, solar panels convert sunlight directly into electricity.

Ausra switched on a factory in Las Vegas in 2010. Image courtesy of Ausra.

Ausra switched on a factory in Las Vegas in 2010, with Harry Reid. Image courtesy of Ausra.

Originally Ausra launched as a solar thermal farm developer — opting to build and own the solar projects — but later changed course to one focused on selling solar equipment to project developer customers. Building and running solar farms requires a lot of capital, which can be difficult to raise as a young startup. Other companies that develop this technology include BrightSource Energy, eSolar, and Abengoa Solar.

As the price of solar panels has dropped dramatically over the years, solar thermal technology has become less attractive to solar developers. When BrightSource finally turned on its solar thermal plant Ivanpah outside of Las Vegas, earlier this year, many called it a solar dinosaur.

Areva says its solar thermal division, which it has owned for four years, generated about 100 million euros ($134 million) in revenue per year but at the same time lost tens of millions annually. Areva wrote down a 373 million euros loss ($500.98 million) on the dropped solar business and 100 jobs will be eliminated.

Areva, which is 87-percent owned by France, also dropped a target to sell 10 nuclear reactors by 2016. The company saw its shares drop by 20 percent on the weak earnings news.

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