Ausra’s core technology is the CLFR (Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector). Instead of the parabolic troughs or mirrors used in other solar thermal systems, this form of CSP (Concentrating Solar Power) uses flat reflectors moving on a single axis plus Fresnel lens to concentrate the solar thermal energy in collectors. Flat mirrors are much cheaper to produce than parabolic ones. Another advantage of CLFR is that it allows for a greater density of reflectors in the array. David Mills originally conceived of the approach in the early 1990s while at Sydney University.
Currently, Ausra is building a 30 MW solar thermal electric power plant, and in the process of scaling up to 2,000 MW over the next three years — enough power for two million homes in the United States.
Founded by Dr. David Mills (who has spent the past three decades in Australia), Ausra got its big break last summer; Mills got to meet solar thermal advocate and venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla. “It’s a great story, really,” observers Toronto Star reporter, Tyler Hamilton. “After years of trying to attract serious interest in his technology in Australia, Mills says he was getting ready to throw in the towel and retire.”
And, now he is getting to do what he has wanted; prove that solar farms can offer utility-scale power at market rates. A September 10 press release, announced that more than $40 million in funding has been secured from Silicon Valley venture capital firms Khosla Ventures and Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers (KPCB).
“Mills is known internationally for his academic advancements in non-imaging optics, solar thermal energy and concentrator systems.”
Mills is not the only Aussie on the Ausra starting team, a group of solar power scientists, power project developers and financiers, who want to make reliable, large-scale solar thermal power a reality. Graham Morrison worked with Mills between 1995 and 2001. Morrison ran Australia’s premier solar test facility and is an expert at both solar collector and solar radiation modeling.
In 2002, Mills and Morrison founded Solar Heat and Power Pty Ltd. in partnership with Ausra CEO Peter Le Lièvre, and SHP built a successful trial 1 megawatt system in 2004 for Macquarie Generation in New South Wales. A following 38 megawatt CLFR solar field is expected to be complete by 2009.
It was Ausra Executive Vice-President John O’Donnell who brought the founders and investors together in October 2006. Le Lièvre recalls, “We found in Khosla Ventures and KPCB a vision that matched ours – a deep understanding of the market and fearlessness about bringing a fundamentally new technology to large scale.”
Le Lièvre has 20 years of experience as an industrial designer specializing in technical development and financing new ventures. Chief Development Officer Robert Morgan and Chief Commercial Officer Glen Davis are recognized power industry experts, having come to Ausra after significant careers with AES and their consultancy Agile Energy. Together, Morgan and Davis have nearly half-a-century of experience in working with utilities to build and manage large-scale power projects around the world.
“Worldwide, the electric power industry creates 40 percent of total carbon emissions, and electricity use is rapidly growing. Ausra’s technology serves a critical need for utilities seeking large-scale affordable sources of clean power to meet the dual challenges of economic growth and carbon constraints,” said Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures and Ausra investor and board member.
One solar thermal electric power plant, the 354 MW SEGS (Solar Energy Generating Systems), which covers 1000 acres in the Mojave Desert in Southern California, produces 90% of the world’s commercially produced solar power. One might perceive such a major effort as an impetus for new investors to believe in the potential of solar thermal.
Ausra aims to expedite the utility industry’s transition to clean energy, helping utilities meet renewable portfolio standards while keeping rates low and the power on for consumers day and night. “Economic development around the world, coupled with recognition that carbon emissions must rapidly be eliminated, has created an enormous market opportunity for companies that can deliver solar power at large scale and at reasonable cost,” says KPCB Partner and Ausra investor and board member Ray Lane.
Lane sees solar thermal electric power generation as a “main event in renewable energy”. It may be, provided that potential water shortages are addressed. As with other steam turbine systems, solar thermal is susceptible to a shortage of water.
The press release did answer one question. I wondered why, since investors were willing to put $40 million into CSP, specifically the Ausra Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector, then had foregone the combined technology developed at MIT. “We had been working on a wide range of alternatives and kept finding that simpler, cheaper approaches outperformed higher-temperature, more sophisticated designs,” says Ausra Chairman David Mills.