1st solar-thermal in years is on

SAN JOSE — California's first new solar-thermal power plant in nearly 20 years went into operation Thursday morning near Bakersfield — a precursor to a much larger plant planned for San Luis Obispo County.

Constructed by Ausra, based in Palo Alto, the Kimberlina plant in Kern County will generate five megawatts of electricity, enough for about 3,500 homes.

While the amount of power is small, the plant's opening is significant, said Bob Fishman, Ausra's president, chairman and chief executive officer.

Ausra's demonstration project is to be the foundation for a 177-megawatt plant near the Carrizo Plain National Monument in San Luis Obispo County’s eastern extreme.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has contracted to buy the electricity from that $550 million plant, which is scheduled to go online in 2011.

"A lot of people in this energy space make a lot of claims," said Fishman, a 30-year power- industry veteran who joined the solar startup in 2007. "We built this facility to show everybody that we’re not just talkers, we’re doers."

Most people think of photovoltaic panels on rooftops when they think of solar.

Fishman said that’s not what Ausra does with solar.

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