Ausra, one of the big names in Silicon Valley solar, just brought in $25.5 million to become a primary supplier of solar thermal equipment for utilities and power generation plants. The money couldn’t come at a better time as capital continues to dry up, especially in the cleantech and solar sectors. At the same time, it solidifies the Mountain View, Calif. company’s role as a supplier, and not a builder of plants itself.
Ausra is one of the prime examples of solar companies that have had to turn to equipment sales in lieu of building power generation facilities due to the economic downturn. Late last year, its plan was to build several utility-scale plants in the southwestern U.S. But that roadmap was put on hold at the end of January when it became clear that the company wouldn’t be able to raise enough capital to finance the projects, which would have cost upwards of $1 billion. On top of that, in December Ausra trimmed a dozen employees from its staff to better weather the climate, and shifted its focus to sales of its concentrated solar equipment.
Basically, the company sells installations that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight on pipes where water evaporates into steam to turn turbines and generate electricity. It claims this technology can also be fairly easily installed in existing fossil fuel plants to cut down on their overall emissions. In addition to full installations, it also sells the mirrors, frames and other components for these systems. Ausra is also eyeing several smaller-scale power generation operations that would serve a select group of customers.
Its competitors in the solar equipment space are also experiencing tough knocks. OptiSolar, based in Hayward, Calif., also had to resort to heavy layoffs to stay afloat. And SunPower, Suntech Power Holdings, Heliovolt and SunEdison took the same road. Considering this bleak landscape, Ausra’s ability to land funds in the double digits actually puts it a bit ahead of the game.
The company manufactures all of its products domestically in Las Vegas, Nev., and says it produces enough equipment to generate more than 700 megawatts of power every year. It last raised funds in October, bringing in $60.6 million from Kern Partners, Generation Investment Management, Starfish Ventures, Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. That might seem like a good chunk of change, but it doesn’t approach the amount of capital needed to construct the larger plants Ausra had in the works before it hit the skids.
The most recent round of financing came from all of its previous backers.