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Why Google Is Investing $168 Million in a Giant Solar Farm

We had a feeling that BrightSource Energy was destined for big things when Google first announced it was investing $10 million in the solar thermal startup in 2008. After all, Google only invests in impressive (TechnoServe, eSolar) and profoundly weird (wind power from kites, anyone?) companies. So it's not all that surprising to learn that BrightSource just finalized $1.6 billion in loans from the U.S Department of Energy as well as a $168 million investment from Google—all to build the world's largest solar project.

When completed in 2013, the Mojave Desert-based Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System will send approximately 2,600 megawatts of power to the grid, doubling the amount of solar thermal power produced in the U.S and generating enough electricity to power 140,000 California homes when operating at full capacity.

This won't be a set of photovoltaic panels like you might see on you're neighbor's roof; the solar themal system consists of thousands of mirrors that reflect sunlight onto a water-filled boiler, creating steam that spins a turbine and generates electricity. It's cheaper than conventional solar panels, but just as reliable. The Ivanpah system goes one step further by converting steam back into water, allowing it to use 95% less water than other solar thermal systems.

It's the kind of creative stuff that Google laps up like catnip. "We’re excited to be making our largest clean energy investment to date. With this investment, we’re helping to deploy the first commercial plant of a potentially transformative solar technology able to deliver clean energy at scale," said Rick Needham, Director of Green Business Operations at Google, in a statement. "Ivanpah will be the largest solar power tower project in the world, able to produce clean electricity at the highest efficiency of any solar thermal plant.  We hope it can serve as a proof point and spur further investment in this exciting technology."

This isn't just a donation. As good-hearted as Google makes itself out to be, when it makes an investment, it wants to make money on the other end. BrightSource already has a deal in place to sell the energy created at Ivanpah to PG&E and Southern California Edison. Every indication is that by 2013, the solar industry will be booming, and Google will be making a pretty penny on those clean watts. Remember that Google already has an energy company. This is just another item in that portfolio.

But wait! There is one thing that could stop them: turtles. BrightSource has already been forced to scale back the project due to concerns about the safety of endangered desert tortoises in the area (the project will still displace up to 140 of the slow-movers, who refuse to get out of the way of progress). It's a problem that will continue to bug the slew of solar companies working on projects in the Mojave—and probably the only thing that may make Google regret its investment.

[Image: Flickr user Clearly Ambiguous]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

Read More: The Solar Industry Responds to Claims of Supply-Chain Dirtiness

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