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In a move that could make solar a much bigger part of the grid, electricity wholesaler NRG Energy announced it will invest $300 million over the next three years in BrightSource’s Ivanpah project, a 392-megawatt solar thermal facility that will be the largest in the world.

NRG didn’t disclose the size of its stake, but said this investment will make it the lead investor in the project through its subsidiary NRG Solar.  The project is expected to generate enough energy to power more than 140,000 homes.

BrightSource has already signed 20- to 25-year power purchase agreements to provide energy generated by Ivanpah to Southern California Edison and PG&E.

“Solar power is a cornerstone of our strategy to produce and deliver clean, zero-emission products and services to America’s growing number of clean energy consumers,” said NRG CEO David Crane in a company statement.

Ivanpah cleared the permitting process earlier this month and has won approval from key California regulators. It has also received a $1.4 billion conditional loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. The project will be built in three phases in Ivanpah, Calif. is expected to be fully operational by mid-2013.

By itself, Ivanpah will double solar thermal capacity in the U.S., and the project has gotten a lot of attention for its massive size and expense. President Obama even mentioned the project in his weekly radio address as an example of green jobs and cleantech strides in the U.S. BrightSource itself is rumored to be pursuing an IPO next year.

Solar thermal projects like Ivanpah differ from traditional photovoltaic installations. They use concentrated solar power — sunlight is reflected and magnified by mirrors onto a point in a tower. The intense heat generated is used to boil liquid, creating steam that then turns electrical turbines. The process can be cheaper than large-scale silicon photovoltaic installations, though Greentech Media points out in the long-run, the prices of PV panels will drop further and could threaten the economics for solar thermal.

NRG Energy, a Fortune 500 company, has been making strides into renewable energy lately. It recently received $5 million from the DOE to investigate geopressurized geothermal energy sources, and also is in the process of buying renewable energy retailer Green Mountain Energy for $350 million. It has also bought into several other solar projects. NRG owns the largest photovoltaic solar project in California, a 21-megawatt installation in Blythe, and has has over 1,150 megawatts of solar projects in the development pipeline.

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