Google invests in big South African solar project

Google (s GOOG) is taking its strategy of investing millions of dollars into clean power projects in the U.S. and focusing it on Africa for the first time. On Thursday, the search engine giant announced that it’s invested $12 million into a large — 96 MW — solar panel farm in South Africa.

When built, the solar project, called Jasper Power Project, will be able to deliver enough clean power for the equivalent of 30,000 South African homes and will be built in the Northern Cape province near the town of Kimberly. California-based solar developer SolarReserve is working with South African clean power companies Intikon Energy and Kensani Group to build the project.

solarpanelThe Jasper solar farm will cost $260 million, and the developers have closed on the financing, including other investments from Public Investment Corporation, Development Bank of South Africa and the PEACE Humansrus Trust. The same developer group was also able to raise $586 million for two other solar panel projects in South Africa. South African state-owned utility Eskom will buy the solar power from the Jasper project, as well as the two other solar projects.

WindGoogleLadyAs Google explains in its blog post this morning, South Africa had the highest growth in clean energy investment in the world in 2012, thanks to its swift creation of incentives for clean power, following a severe energy shortage in the country. These clean power projects are also creating jobs for South Africans, and the Jasper project is supposed to offer 300 construction jobs and 50 operational jobs when completed.

SolarReserve not only develops solar projects, it also makes solar thermal technology, which uses the suns heat to produce power (solar panels convert sun light into electricity). But in recent years, because of the massive drop in the price of solar panels, solar thermal farms have become less competitive with solar panel farms.

Google has invested over a billion dollars into a Hoover’s Dam worth (2 GW) of clean power projects, from wind farms, to solar thermal and solar panel installations. It’s also doing more experimental things — for example, its lab Google X recently bought up the high altitude wind startup Makani Power.

Google is interested in clean power because the company consumes a ton of energy for its data centers every year. Google wants to move more and more of that energy onto clean power in order to reduce its carbon footprint, but also to better manage the source of its energy generation. However, Google has long said that it has been making these billion dollars of investment into clean power projects, mostly as a way to make money. It isn’t directly using the clean energy from most of these investments.