Last week, solar-thermal startup Ausra announced it is getting a new CEO (see Ausra Poaches CEO From Calpine).
The Palo Alto, Calif.,-based company expects Robert Fishman, an executive at troubled, bulletin-board-traded power company Calpine, to take Ausra's technology - which makes electricity using the sun's heat - out of stealth mode and into the mainstream.
No doubt Fishman is feeling pressure to perform from Ausra's high-profile venture backers Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Earlier this month, the firms dumped $40 million into the company (see Ausra Raises $40M for Concentrating Solar-Thermal).
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 so far.
But Fishman, expected to start at Ausra on Oct. 15, is no stranger to challenging situations. He's been Calpine's power-operations executive vice president, overseeing operations, development and construction. In December 2005, the independent power industry giant and its subsidiaries filed for bankruptcy, according to research firm ValueEngine. The company has yet to climb out of the hole.
Greentech Media talked with the incoming CEO about his strategy for Ausra and the hard-knock lessons learned when a company takes a financial nosedive.
Q: Where is Ausra with the development of its technology?
A: We have in Australia the … first system up and running and selling steam to a coal plant. Our next step is to begin to deploy the technology. We're getting ready to do a few small projects here in the U.S. As soon as we get our power-purchase agreements done with some of the major utilities, we'll be announcing a fairly significantly sized project.
Q: Other companies have brought solar-thermal to market with limited success. What about Ausra's technology makes you think it will different this time?
A: We are having relatively simple, less expensive mirrors, which are going to focus on pipes to make steam directly. We're not going to heat up oil and then heat up water to make steam. We think by keeping it simple, we can keep the capital cost down, thereby offer prices that are extremely competitive to the utilities.
Q: How much per watt?
A: We're not ready to talk about numbers just yet.
Q: So, why did you leave Calpine?
A: I think over the next 10, 20 or 30 years that renewable energy is going to be the most rapidly growing part of the power sector.
Q: Why you do think Calpine went bankrupt?
A: How much time do you have? No, I think Calpine had a good idea. The strategy was not executed with discipline. That is, it invested in power plants and markets that it could not make money in.
Q: Were you part of any of those key decisions in that process?
A: Not till the very end. I did my best to unwind those prior decisions and I think that really helped the company.
Q: What hard-knock lessons did you learn from Calpine and how will you apply them to Ausra?
A: I think the business models are going to be significantly different. Calpine went to what is called a merchant model, where it sold a lot of power in a merchant way, meaning where power was traded. And that's a very volatile business and hard to have a stable operation.
The Ausra model is going to be very different. We are going to be building power plants after we get long-term contract with utilities to sell the power. So Ausra will have long-term predictable earnings based on these long-term contracts with the utilities.