Renewables Research to Get Boost
From Google Goal to Oust Coal
Dec 6, 2007 - California Energy Markets
Google plans to spend hundreds of millions
of dollars in coming years to make electricity from
renewable sources cheaper than that generated from
The "RE(C" initiative seeks to limit
global warming, bolster energy production in developing
parts of the world and make the Mountain View-based
"Energy is a very big market," Google
co-founder and products president Larry Page said
in a conference call Tuesday. Fostering a profit-driven
business system offers the best way to battle climate
change, Page added.
The company's philanthropic branch,
Google.org, will fund research in technologies, invest
in new companies and conduct its own research and
development. The firm will hire up to 30 energy experts,
engineers and others in the next year or two.
RE(C aims to produce 1 GW of energy
produced from renewable sources at a cheaper price
"We may help spark a green electricity
revolution that will deliver breakthrough technologies
priced lower than coal," Google.org Executive Director
Larry Brilliant said in a press release.
"We're gonna try to make that happen
now," Page said Tuesday. "We've seen technologies
that we think can really mature into very capable
While most of Google's business focuses
on search and advertising, some of it-including the
RE(C initiative-falls into an undefined area. But
the effort fits Google's business model partly because
of the company's power-intensive computer basis, said
Sergey Brin, Google co-founder and president of technology.
And much of that power stems from dirty sources. Coal
supplies about 40 percent of the world's electricity.
"We don't feel good about being in that
situation, as a company," Brin said.
Google wants to develop the technology
and get it adopted as broadly as possible, he added.
The company could build on-site and produce power
for its data centers or sell the technology for others
to produce power.
Google could also acquire or invest
in companies in the U.S. or overseas that are working
on related technology, as well as license technology
to others or make profits on infrastructure. The company
is already working with Pasadena-based eSolar Inc.,
which specializes in solar-thermal power, for instance,
and Alameda-based Makani Power Inc., which develops
high-altitude wind-energy technology.
"The goal is not to have huge margins
here. The goal is to really replace the dirty energy
that's out there," Brin said. "We don't feel we have
to own every piece. We just want this problem solved."
Earlier this year, Google announced
a goal to go carbon-neutral by the end of 2007. The
company has installed a 1.6 MW solar-photovoltaic
array at its Mountain View headquarters. Google.org
also works on policies to encourage renewable-energy
development. A $10 million request for proposals aims
to speed up plug-in vehicle development. That effort
drew more than 300 responses, showing high interest,
But projects such as installing solar
panels will not solve climate-change problems while
prices for renewable energy remain high, Google's
green energy czar Bill Weihl said Tuesday.
"We really need to accelerate the pace
of technology development to drive the cost down much
faster to make it competitive with coal," Weihl said,
adding that renewable power must fall into the 1 cent
to 3 cent/kWh range to compete with power from coal-fired
plants, which ranges from 2 cents to 4 cents/kWh.
Conservation and policy remain critical
components, Brin said. "This is one piece of the puzzle,"
he said of cutting renewables costs.
Not all expect Google to reach the goal
or profit from it.
"It's a great thing for society. I'm
not sure it's a great thing for Google," said Severin
Borenstein, an economics professor and director of
the University of California Energy Institute at Berkeley.
"It's a pretty risky bet."
The move takes a chance on science and
policy and may not make the company money, Borenstein
said. He doubted renewable power's prices could beat
coal without any carbon-sequestration limits. He also
would prefer to see the federal government act as
the primary funder of such research to ensure the
public can access the results and knowledge, rather
than a private firm owning it as property.
But federal funding in renewable-energy
research has stalled in recent years, so Borenstein
welcomed Google's step, along with similar funding
that other companies may now make.
"There is a herd mentality in Silicon
Valley and right now, the herd is moving toward renewable
energy," he said.
Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Natural
Resources Defense Council's energy program, agreed,
noting venture capital invested in renewable technology.
"There clearly is widespread interest," he said.
Cavanagh expects those efforts to pan
"It is not only possible but essential"
to get renewables' prices below coal's, he said. "Google's
interest lies in making it happen."
Along with other scientists, Hugh Pitcher,
a scientist with the Joint Global Climate Change Research
Institute at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory, has called for funding
of such technology research.
"This is exactly the kind of initiative
we need," Pitcher said. "Google has some funds to
play with and I think it's fantastic that they're
willing to go after something like this."
He questioned whether renewables could
beat coal's cheap rates. And besides cheap energy
sources, building a new electrical system entails
ensuring reliability, capacity and the ability for
different technologies to work together. But Pitcher
also pointed to stagnant federal funding for energy
research-and to venture-capital groups that have begun
investing in renewable energy.
"People are beginning to understand
that there's a real market and there's potentially
money to be made," he said [Hilary Corrigan].