solarpower.bmpThe U.S. Department of Energy has awarded $168 million to 13 solar companies, many of them Silicon Valley start-ups, in what is the equivalent of manna falling from heaven for these companies.

It is cut-throat industry, where solar projects are expensive and difficult to get off the ground, but once at high-levels of production can prove efficient and profitable.

Just last week, a group of ethanol companies were awarded similar grants, to help create alternative fuels.

These are the most valuable awards yet for the start-up community’s push to create alternative energy sources to gasoline and natural gas.

The awards are part of President Bush’s Solar America Initiative.

The latest awardees include Berkeley’s PowerLight, and its parent company, San Jose’s SunPower. Particular noteworthy are the awards to Palo Alto’s Nanosolar and Santa Clara’s Miasole, two companies that are producing really thin sheets of solar cells that can be spread efficiently across vast areas, such as parking lots or roofs of large companies.

Miasole’s grant begins at $5.8 million for the first year and will total about $20 million over three years if it meets certain targets. Nanosolar will get about $20 million over three years if it meets its milestones.

More details here.