RENEWABLE ENERGY:

French nuclear giant buys Calif. solar startup

The French energy company Areva SA is buying Ausra Inc., a California solar-power startup backed by high-profile venture capitalists.

Perhaps best known for its nuclear power plants, Paris-based Areva has branched out in recent years into designing and building wind farms and biomass power plants. The Ausra acquisition, which is slated to close in the next few months, would form the backbone of Areva's new solar electricity business.

The companies did not disclose financial terms of the deal.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Ausra makes and sells concentrated solar power systems that use curved mirrors to focus sunlight onto water-filled tubes to produce steam for electric utilities and industrial customers. Areva plans to build -- but not necessarily own and operate -- power plants using the solar-thermal technology.

"Our plan, in line with our broader renewable energy strategy, is to build concentrated solar power plants," explained Areva spokesman Jarret Adams.

Ausra Chairman and CEO Robert Fishman would lead Areva's solar business unit from Silicon Valley.

"Combining Areva's financial and commercial strengths, and its energy expertise, with Ausra's proven technology and experienced management team will help position Areva for even greater success in the renewable and carbon-free energy industry," Fishman noted in a written statement.

Adams said Areva plans to press forward with a handful of solar-thermal projects Ausra has under development. He declined to provide additional details, but pointed to several Ausra projects already in the field.

In Australia's New South Wales province, Ausra built a solar-thermal array that generates steam for a coal-fired power plant. Ausra, which was founded in 2006 with backing from venture capitalists Vinod Khosla and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, deployed the same solar-thermal technology at a research plant in Bakersfield, Calif.

Areva is also looking to gain a foothold in the U.S. wind and biomass power sectors.

The company, which is majority-owned by the French government, recently completed its first offshore wind farm, along Germany's northern coast. Officials hope to build similar wind farms with Areva-built turbines in the United States, Adams said.

Areva recently announced plans to build its first U.S. biomass power plants -- two of them in Florida, the third in Washington state. The power plants would use wood chips as feedstock.

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