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Ausra Update: Layoffs and a Change of Business Plans Confirmed

Michael Kanellos: January 28, 2009, 10:04 PM
On Monday, Ausra execs called up to confirm and clarify and earlier story we wrote about their layoffs. The solar thermal company confirmed it laid off about 10 percent of its staff, a spokeswoman said Monday. The layoffs occurred in January (laid off employees told us they began in December.) At the same time, she said the company is changing business plans. While it still plans to complete the solar thermal project it has with PG&E, it will now become an equipment supplier rather than a power producer. Since then, the company's been trying to schedule a meeting with us to further explain its change in lifestyle. In short, it will sell its mirrors, pipes and steam-capture equipment to coal mines and food-processing plants. The shift makes a lot of sense. For one thing, building solar thermal plants takes several years and millions of dollars in capital. You don't need to go through years of BLM meetings to sell equipment to private companies. Second, Ausra has lost out on some of the big deals to Brightsource Energy and others. Thus, it's selling solar steam equipment to people who just need equipment or want to wallow in what might have been. Ausra already has a contract to deliver equipment to produce solar steam to a coal mine in Australia. Solar steam has another advantage. The steam, generated by heat collected by its mirrors, is used directly as an energy source. In a solar thermal power plant, it is run through a turbine. Some efficiency is lost. Ergo, the new products will be more efficient at generating power than the old ones. On the other hand, these projects won't nearly be as big as the Khosla Ventures funded company originally pursued.

Battery Startup Imara Makes Massive Breakthrough: Proves Naming Consultants Work

Michael Kanellos: January 28, 2009, 3:10 PM
Name consultants generally rank fairly low on the utilitarian/work-is-noble scale. They are more useful than coal scuttlers in the public mind, but way below tree root remover, corn-dog coater and people that paint themselves silver and pretend to be statues. But Imara, the lithium-ion battery manufacturer that used to be known as LiON Cells, has unearthed evidence that they actually work. When the company wanted to rename itself, it held a contest. Employees, the public relations firm and others submitted 320 names, said CEO Jeff Depew. A ringer, a branding consultant, also submitted names. The list was winnowed down to 10. Eight of the 10 were from the naming consultant, including the name. Imara is Swahili for power, strength and endurance, three of the qualities the company claims its batteries can provide. Some of the names that came from the non-professionals include Interspark (not the sort of name an industry troubled by electrical short circuits would embrace) and Lithiated. Dude, you are so lithiated. My hands are forming a box around your face and then drawing you out. We'll be posting more on our visit to Imara soon, but I felt like sharing that now.

Applied Materials CEO Talks Solar With Obama

Ucilia Wang: January 28, 2009, 9:03 AM

Applied Materials CEO Mike Splinter advocated for a mix of direct investments and tax incentives when he met with President Obama today.

Splinter was part of a group of CEOs from large companies, including Google, IBM, Jet Blue Airways and Micron Technology, who spoke with Obama. The president, in turn, used the opportunity to lobby for the business community’s support of his proposed $816 billion stimulus package.

While the president chatted with the business execs, the House of Representatives was set to vote on the stimulus package today.

Splinter spoke about the importance of investing in solar and championed ideas that also had been presented by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). The SEIA’s call for converting an investment tax credit into a direct payment to solar power project developers is now part of the stimulus package.

The tax credit, extended by Congress last October, can offset 30 percent of the cost of building a solar power plant. The tax credit has lost some of its allure because of the credit crunch. Solar project developers in the past used the tax credit to obtain loans from banks, which were then entitled to benefit from the tax credit. But the banks, as you know, aren't so willing to loan money these days.

Splinter pushed for using solar energy to power federal buildings. He said Congress should set aside $10 billion for installing and operating solar energy systems on federal buildings. He also recommended an increase to loan guarantees and research funds to promote renewable energy developments and commercialization.

Obama has said previously that he wants to double the country’s renewable energy production in three years, though exactly how the government could accomplish that remains a big question.