BrightSource, Alstom Eye Mediterranean “Ring” for Solar Thermal

BrightSource Energy and French power giant Alstom said Wednesday that they’ve formed a partnership aimed at building solar-thermal power plants in a ring around the Mediterranean. In terms of geography, if not scale, the plan echoes the scheme of the Desertec Initiative, a $555 billion plan to build enough solar power in North Africa to supply 15 percent of Europe’s electricity need by 2050.

Wednesday’s announcement provided no details as to when Alstom and BrightSource expected to start building solar-thermal plants together, or the scale of their plans. The two did say they would combine Alstom’s plant integration experience and power generation equipment with BrightSource’s solar field and tower-based technology to tailor projects to specific customer needs. As to where they planned to focus their efforts, the two looked “in particular in the Mediterranean ring and Africa,” according to their press release.

Desertec, whose consortium members include power and engineering giants Siemens (s SI) and ABB, solar developer Solar Millenium, and thin-film giant First Solar (s FSLR), has also been envisioned primarily as a solar-thermal power project. Capturing the sun to heat water or other liquids and generate steam to spin a turbine can be less expensive than solar PV at massive scales, and it can also offer a means of storing heat energy to generate power when the sun goes down.

The Desertec initiative remains in the early stages of raising money, and it will likely require quite a bit of government support to reassure investors in such a massive scheme. BrightSource and Alstom will also, in all likelihood, face a long a difficult road when it comes to financing.

BrightSource is one of few solar-thermal startups still standing as an independent company in a time when many companies have been acquired, shut down or scaled back. Siemens bought Israeli solar-thermal startup Solel for $418 million last year, and French nuclear power giant Areva bought startup Ausra for an undisclosed sum in February. Google-backed (s GOOG) eSolar, meanwhile, has seen would-be project partner NRG Energy drop solar thermal plans in favor of photovoltaics for a proposed 92-megawatt solar project. In August, Schott Solar said it would halve its production of solar thermal gear and lay off 30 workers. There’s a big difference between developing new technology and finding the financing to build a massive power plant, after all.

In that context, BrightSource’s relationship with Alstom could prove crucial in boosting prospective investors’ confidence in the company. Alstom also invested $55 million in BrightSource in May as part of a Series D round that has since climbed to a total of $176 million. The Oakland, Calif.-based company is expected to announce an IPO soon, although whether that comes next year or later is the subject of much speculation.

In the meantime, BrightSource has been pushing ahead with its own 392-megawatt Ivanpah solar-thermal plant, supported by a a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. BrightSource plans to start construction of Ivanpah by the end of this year, and it expects to complete it in 2013.

For more research on cleantech financing check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Image courtesy of BrightSource.