Google announced April 11 it was taking yet another step down the path of alternative energy with $168 million in equity financing for BrightSource Energy, Inc., a California renewable energy company.

That, reported Bloomberg News, coupled with a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy, are targeted toward the construction of what will be the world’s largest solar energy plant.

The Ivanpah project, which will provide 392 megawatts in southern California, consists of three separate plants, and is already under construction; that was begun by Bechtel Corp. in October. Mirrors known as heliostats are part of the BrightSource solar thermal system, and focus sunlight on boilers that are mounted on top of towers. The system generates temperatures of more than 1,000°F (538°C) to produce steam in the boilers; that is then piped to a power-generating turbine.

This isn’t Google’s first toe in the alternative energy stream; it’s invested more than $250 million in projects to produce renewable energy. Google.org, its investing unit, took part in a financing round with BrightSource worth $115 million that closed in 2008. Rick Needham, Google’s director of green business operations, said in a statement of this latest venture, “We’re helping to deploy the first commercial plant of a potentially transformative solar technology able to deliver clean energy at scale.” He continued, “Ivanpah will be the largest solar-power tower project in the world.”

The timing may be perfect. Last year was marked by the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, its full effects still unknown but its very occurrence giving pause to the thought of more deep drilling lest new crises occur. While natural gas from the Marcellus Shale has tempted investors, continuing reports about ground water contamination and other dangers of fracking (the method used to extract natural gas from shale wells) have brought calls for more caution.

And this year, in the wake of Japan’s triple crisis of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, wariness of the hazards of nuclear energy have resulted in many nations calling a halt to their own nuclear projects till safety concerns can be reevaluated. Rising oil prices

caused by unrest in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region complicate the matter, as markets try to deal with increased costs for production and transportation. Yet energy needs remain.

What’s an investor to do? Check out ETFs that invest in alternative energy sources, for one thing. These have been doing well this year when other energy investments have lagged, and have drawn some $243 billion in new investments in 2010, up 30% from 2009, according to Green Investing 2011: Reducing the Cost of Financing, a report released on Apr. 1 by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Some ETFs that explore energy from a new angle include:

  • iShares S&P Global Clean Energy Index Fund (ICLN) With 40% of its investments in technology and another 40% in utilities, this fund offers a spectrum of 31 securities that are divided up among the U.S., China, Spain, and Brazil.
  • PowerShares Global Wind Energy Portfolio (PWND) The top two holdings in this ETF are Vestas Wind Systems and Iberdrola Energias Renovables, both from Spain; in fact, nearly 30% of this fund’s holdings are Iberian in origin.
  • Market Vectors Solar Energy ETF (KWT) There are approximately 30 companies in this fund, leaning toward mid and small cap, and companies include First Solar, Inc. (FSLR), MEMC Electronic Materials (WFR), and Trina Solar Limited ADR (TSL).
  • Guggenheim Solar ETF (TAN) This fund includes among its top 10 holdings First Solar, Inc., Trina Solar Limited Sponsored A, SOLARWORLD, and Yingli Green Energy Holding Company (YGE).
  • PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy Portfolio (PBW) With top 10 holdings that include Tesla Motors, Inc. (TSLA) and Cree, Inc. (CREE), which includes among its products LEDs, this fund looks to improved technology for energy savings.

More good news is that alternative energy projects have thus far escaped government budget cuts, according to a Barron’s report. Not just BrightSource, but also SunPower Corp.has benefited from an Energy Department federal program, to the tune of some $1.18 billion in loan guarantees. Perhaps alternative energy is an investment whose day has finally dawned.