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French nuclear company Areva has just taken its first step into the solar market with the acquisition of Ausra, a Mountain View, Calif.-based maker of solar thermal equipment. The deal represents a major new market for Areva, while simultaneously propping up Ausra, which weathered some hard knocks last year.

Last year at this time, the solar startup provider scrapped plans to build several massive plants across the southwest and California deserts. Weakened by the economic downturn at the end of 2008, it decided to shift its focus away from generation to more lucrative equipment sales. After all, it is known for its proprietary light-focusing mirrors, which concentrate sunlight to create steam that turns turbines. But the decision still came with significant layoffs.

Things perked up a bit in April when the company raised $25.5 million in a fourth round of funding (counting Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Khosla Ventures among its investors) — but that money was earmarked explicitly for the narrower focus on equipment sales, rather than jump-starting its plant-building ambitions all over again. The company found itself in a sticky spot, on one hand bringing in a huge $123 million total from private investors, yet still unable to afford bigger capital intensive projects.

But Areva’s decision to buy Ausra could change all that. As the leading maker of nuclear reactors in France, a country that has been enthusiastic about nuclear to say the least, it appears to have the chops to realize Ausra’s power plant vision. In fact, it plans to build a number of utility-scale facilities in the U.S., Europe, South America and the Middle East. Areva already has a presence in wind, biomass and hydrogen power. It was only a matter of time before it jumped into solar.

With prestigious investors and plant schematics already in the hopper, Ausra seemed like an ideal buy. In fact, several prospective buyers had been circling the company for a while. Limited news on the Areva acquisition reveals that two other unidentified conglomerates also bid on Ausra. Greentech Media has disqualified Siemens as a prospective buyer because it decided to acquire solar startup Solel for $418 million last year.

It’s interesting that Areva, which has been in the market for a solar partner for a while, chose to go with solar thermal. It predicts that that business will grow 20 percent over the next year, and that solar thermal will account for 20 gigawatts of generating capacity by 2020 — that’s enough to power 20 million homes around the world. That’s also good news for competitors like Spain’s Abengoa, California-based eSolar, and Bechtel-backed Brightsource Energy.

Areva has gone as far as to claim that just about 8,000 square miles of California desert (the Mojave Desert alone covers 25,000 square miles), could be enough to power the entire U.S. using Ausra’s concentrating solar thermal equipment. Considering how long that company has been stalled due to the economy, the deal with Areva could be the best thing to happen to all sides, including American utility customers.

Previously, Ausra also took funding from KERN Partners, Generation Partners and Starfish Ventures. Vinod Khosla and Kleiner managing partner have also participated as individual investors.

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