France’s Areva SA is known mostly as a designer of light-water nuclear reactors, builder of transmission and distribution systems, and a miner of uranium, so the announcement today that it has purchased 100 per cent of concentrated solar power company Ausra Inc. came as a surprise. Ausra, based in Mountain View, Calif., was founded by Canadian inventor Dr David Mills. Mills developed the underlying technology as a student and professor in Australia, but located the company in Silicon Valley as part of a major venture capital infusion from Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Mills is currently the company’s chief scientific officer.
Areva said today that the acquisition marks its entry into the solar thermal power market, where it intends to be the leader. The market itself is expected to grow 20 per cent annually over the next decade. This is just the latest in a string of acquisitions and deals aimed at broadening Areva’s portfolio of renewable energy products and services. The company has been pushing heavily into biomass power and has been building biomass/biogas plants in the U.S., Brazil, India, Thailand and other countries. It is dabbling in hydrogen production and fuel cell systems, and through its acquisition of Germany’s Multibrid is trying to establish itself as a future leader in offshore wind.
It’s going to take big, deep-pocketed companies like Areva to really push deployment of solar thermal and other promising renewables, so this acquisition of Ausra is a good sign of where the market is heading. Given that the nuclear renaissance simply isn’t materializing as expected, it’s wise for Areva and other big energy conglomerates to hedge their bets.