Ausra is getting a new head honcho. Robert Fishman, an executive at troubled, bulletin-board-traded power company Calpine, said Thursday he will be taking the reins of the Palo Alto, Calif.,-based solar company.
Earlier this month, Ausra officially came out of stealth mode when it announced it raised $40 million from high-profile venture-capital firms Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. (see Ausra Raises $40M for Concentrating Solar-Thermal).
The company is working on technology that makes electricity using the sun's heat, unlike traditional solar-photovoltaic technology that converts sunlight into electricity.
While solar-thermal power holds the potential to deliver a far cheaper form of solar power to utilities, it's been limited to small demonstration plants.
Ausra will need to prove it's got the goods by expanding beyond pilot plants. And it appears Ausra will be looking to Fishman to do just that.
Fishman, expected to start Oct. 15, is the San Jose, Calif.,-based Calpine's power-operations executive vice president, overseeing operations, development and construction.
Calpine is a major player in the independent power industry, delivering over 24,000 megawatts of electricity from natural gas-fired and geothermal power plants.
But in December 2005, the company and its subsidiaries filed for bankruptcy, according to research firm ValueEngine. The company has yet to climb out of the hole.
Morningstar stock analyst Paul Larson's "30,000-foot view" on what went wrong is that it was Calpine's plan to build gas-fired power plants across the country. "At the time, natural gas was a relatively cheap fuel," he said, and a lot more pollution-friendly when compared to such fuels as those derived from coal.
So the company pursed its plan, financing a large portion of it with debt.
But the business climate was changing. Natural gas prices went up, fueled by such events as Hurricane Katrina.
"They didn't see the writing on the wall until it was too late," Larson said.
So why would Ausra pull a CEO from a financially challenged company like Calpine?
Well, regardless of the bankruptcy, it is still a major player in the independent power industry, Larson said. His analogy: If automaker Ford went out of business, companies would be interested in their employees.
Ray Lane, a partner at KPCB, said Fisher is just what the company needs. Those at Ausra agreed.
"We're thrilled that Bob is joining us to lead our team and our company to the next stage," said Peter Le Lièvre, Ausra's founding CEO.
Le Lièvre will continue in his role leading the company's international projects.
As to why Fishman left Calpine? It appears optimism was his guiding light. "I see decades of opportunity as the solar-thermal power industry becomes the fastest-growing sector of electric power worldwide," he said. And, of course, he is expecting Ausra to be the major player.