American automakers and their suppliers have long clustered around Detroit, but the solar power industry is just starting to grow and mature as the nation and the world try to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, such as oil, natural gas and coal.
Ausra Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif., solar technologies developer, on Thursday reported that it intends to build a 130,000-square-foot assembly plant using the same kind of robotic equipment that automakers use to automate and reduce costs of their vehicles.
The solar assembly plant, at 6405 Ensworth St., is scheduled to start operations in April and will employ 50 workers making components for solar thermal power plants. The Las Vegas plant, for example, will supply components for a central California plant that will cover one square mile and will generate 177 megawatts of power for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Ausra's plants use the sun's heat to create steam that spins turbines to generate electricity. They store the heat so that power generation can continue after the sun sets. The startup company, which is backed by venture capitalists, expects to produce enough solar collectors to cover four square miles each year, supplying electricity for 500,000 homes. The Ausra plant is the first automated assembly plant for the solar thermal industry, said John O'Donnell, executive vice president. It will triple the world's manufacturing capacity for solar thermal plants, he said.
Whether or not the Ausra plant can attract solar energy industry companies to Las Vegas will depend on whether Congress passes legislation that would provide investment tax credits to the solar energy industry for eight years, O'Donnell said.
In the past, Congress has limited tax credit programs for renewable energy industry for a couple of years at a time, giving developers little time to build projects that qualify, he said. "The U.S. manufacturers have been disadvantaged (by the lack of long-term tax incentives)," O'Donnell said. "In Spain and Europe, solar is exploding because of stable government policy."
Nevada Solar One, a solar thermal power plant built by Acciona Energy of Spain, imported curved mirrors from Germany, steel tubes from Israel and steel structures from Arizona, he said.
Developer Peter Thomas, a member of the Nevada Development Authority executive committee and former president of Bank of America in Nevada, said the solar assembly plant could draw suppliers to Las Vegas. Getting the assembly plant located in Las Vegas is one step in developing a solar power industry in Southern Nevada, Thomas said.
"The push by (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid is doing for solar energy and renewable energy and away from coal (power plants) is another step in getting critical mass for that sort of development in Nevada," Thomas said.
Meanwhile. Scot Rutledge, executive director of the Nevada Conservation League and member of the Nevada Clean Energy Campaign, said in a statement: "This is a great development for Nevada's energy future." The campaign opposes coal plants and favors renewable power.
The Nevada Commission on Economic Development did not return a call for comment. O'Donnell said the power industry is embracing solar energy. "Every utility in the Southwest is talking about large-scale solar projects," he said.
California power companies must obtain 17,000 megawatts of additional renewable energy, including solar power, by 2020 to satisfy state requirements. Ausra also hopes to sell components for solar energy projects in other neighboring states.
Ausra will use its products in plants it builds and will sell components to other solar energy developers. By relying on assembly plant automation and low-cost flat glass panels, Ausra intends to drive down the cost of solar thermal projects.
"Within five years, (solar thermal technology will) be competitive with coal," O'Donnell said. Coal is one of the lowest-cost conventional sources of power, but Congress is expected to start regulating carbon dioxide emissions, including those from coal plants. O'Donnell said no one knows how expensive it will be for coal plants to comply with those regulations.
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