Uncle Sam Backs BrightSource's Big Desert Solar Project

Provided BrightSource Energy can secure a few environmental clearances, the company now appears to have a clear path to building a massive solar plant in the deserts of southern California -- the first of its kind to be built on such a scale.

The Federal government announced yesterday that it had decided to guarantee $1.37 billion in loans to BrightSource, which is one of several "solar thermal" power companies in the United States. Along with others like Abengoa, Ausra (recently acquired by Areva) and eSolar, BrightSource uses mirrors to direct light, capturing the sun's heat by boiling water to drive steam turbines.

BrightSource has fought through quite a few challenges to reach this point. The worst of those has been the recession, and a corresponding tightfistedness by investors of all stripes.

But the company has also had to fight for the survival of its projects; last year I wrote about California senator Dianne Feinstein threatening to block several massive solar projects for the safety of a desert tortoise. In December, Feinstein succeeded in getting BrightSource and others to scale back their ambitions in a protected portion of the Mojave Desert.

Today, BrightSource is planning for a 400 megawatt power plant in Ivanpah Valley, which is part of the Mojave. That's significantly smaller than the initial plan, but the scale is still immense -- the design has to be spread out between three distinct generating plants, and the engineering firm Bechtel will supposedly employ 1,000 workers to help build the plant.

When they're done, each plant will look a bit like a giant flower, with thousands of mirrors surrounding central stamens, or what is called a "power tower" in the industry. At peak hours, the plants will produce enough power for over a hundred thousand homes.

As for the Federal grant, it's still conditioned on BrightSource getting the last few permits it needs. But at this point the plan has fought through its worst challenges, including re-designing to protect the tortoise and other desert creatures, so it seems like a good bet that it will go ahead.

The bigger story at this point may be the increasingly common loan guarantees that the Fed is doling out for energy, which insure private investors against what they might view as risky energy technologies.

BrightSource is only the most recent cleantech startup to be awarded a guarantee. Solyndra, a solar panel maker (sort of) got a $535 million guarantee to build a manufacturing plant last year, for example, while the electric car startups Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive have both been promised around $500 million.

The Department of Energy's guarantees aren't news anymore, and they aren't unlimited. But so far, the DOE appears to be making good bets, and is assigning the money it has speedily. The upshot will be a cleantech industry with the potential to produce large, successful companies. Before the loans started rolling in, that was in no way guaranteed.