Areva Gobbles Up Ausra

oz Areva Gobbles Up Ausra

Areva, the swarming energy conglomerate, has won the bidding war and purchased Ausra, the solar thermal specialist.

Two other conglomerates had been bidding on the company, accordingto sources. One of them, however, was likely not Siemens. Siemensbought rival Solel for $418 million last year.

Like many Silicon Valley-funded startups, Ausra came up with a novelidea for harnessing clean power, but has lacked the money, engineeringand contracts to fully test it out or take it commercial. The company,which raised over $115 million from firms such as Kleiner, Perkins,wanted to replace the expensive parabolic mirrors at solar thermalpower plants with cheaper flat mirrors. At one point, the companytheorized–as a way to illustrate the power of solar thermaltechnology–that it could conceivably harvest all of the electricalpower the U.S. would need from a hypothetical plot of desert realestate measuring 92 miles by 92 miles.

Unfortunately, it never got a chance to start testing that out on alarge scale. PG&E, Southern California Edison and the other bigCalifornia utilities awarded their solar thermal contracts tocompetitors such as BrightSource Energy and Stirling Energy Systems.Speculation – never substantiated – circulated in the solar industrythat Ausra’s equipment could not provide the same level of power asother competitors. 

In February of this year, the company shifted directions. It largelyabandoned its earlier plans to build and operate solar thermal powerplants. Instead, it would sell equipment to large companies would would operate the power plants.

Power plants "are way beyond" the capabilities of a startup, said CEO Bob Fishman.

Fishman’s words in early 2009 proved prophetic: conglomerates arecoming in to the market as the start-ups try to navigate the financialand logistical issues of the market. Rival eSolar, which has a similarsystem, backed away from its plans to build power plants. The companynow licenses its technology. ESolar still talks about building powerplants, but its main activities now are wrapped around getting Indianand Chinese conglomerates the tools to build their own solar thermalpower plants. 

Meanwhile, BrightSource Energy, arguably the most successful solarthermal start-up so far, had to sell part of its big power plant inCalifornia to Bechtel, which will help build it.

Conglomerate-itis. It’s catching.

Areva, by the way, knows quite a bit about financing and planning large projects. It’s the world’s biggest nuclear company.