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Where's Google Putting Its Money?

From Solar to Geothermal, High-Altitude Wind to Hybrids

By Renee Cho

Feb 5, 2010

The International Energy Agency projects that will increase 46 percent by 2030, requiring an investment of $26.3 trillion in energy infrastructure to meet the expected demand.

Revamping our energy system and doing so with more renewable energy will take substantial funding, and while some countries, like China, are investing in the whole cleantech pipeline, from “lightbulb to lightbulb” — from idea to implementation, as Google puts it — the U.S. is investing in cleantech only sporadically.

“We need to invest across that whole spectrum, and we need to make that sustained,” said Bill Weihl, Google’s Green Energy Czar.

Google, for one, is putting its money where its mouth is.

“Other companies of comparable size are doing a lot in corporate social responsibility, but no one else is putting the amount of money into energy generation and breakthrough science that Google is," said Dallas Kachan, managing director at the industry analyst Cleantech Group.

Because it is a major energy consumer, Google is highly motivated to minimize its energy use and invest in renewable energy, both for its bottom line and its image, and it has largely been able to avoid criticism for its “astronomical” use of power because of its cleantech investments, noted Kachan.

Besides promoting policy with , a plan to wean the U.S. off coal and oil for electricity by 2030, Google is in cleantech on several fronts: developing utility scale renewable energy that can compete straight up with coal, and supporting commercial adoption of plug-in vehicles. Google aims to drive the costs of both down and roll out innovative and scalable solutions within 3 to 7 years. Its solar installation, Power Meter, venture capital fund, and Google Energy are further examples of the company’s expanding reach into the clean energy sector.

Here’s a look at how Google is putting its money to work:

RE<C

Since 2007, Google has invested over $45 million in efforts to make renewable energy cost less than coal with its program RE<C.

Because most people will not or cannot pay a premium for renewable energy, Weihl believes we will only stop burning coal and embrace renewables when they can compete on an equal footing. To make this happen, Google is pushing the envelope on advanced solar thermal power, high altitude wind technology, and enhanced geothermal systems, through research and strategic grants made by Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm.

Google’s goal is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy (enough to power San Francisco) within a few years.

Solar Thermal Power

Solar thermal power plants concentrate the sun’s energy several hundred times over to heat something hot enough to make steam that then drives a turbine to generate electricity. Google engineers are researching ways to design and build systems that are more reliable, efficient, and less costly, and that can achieve higher temperatures.

Google.org has invested $10 million in two California companies, and , which are developing scalable solar thermal power plants using arrays of flat mirrors, called heliostats, that swivel to track the sun and direct its rays onto a receiver on a “power tower.” The receiver heats up and makes steam to drive a turbine.

Last year, eSolar contracted with NRG Energy to create a 92-megawatt solar thermal power plant in New Mexico. It has also licensed its technology to a Chinese company for a 2,000-megawatt solar thermal project. BrightSource has contracts to supply Southern California Edison with 1,300 megawatts of electricity, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company with 1,310 megawatts.

High Altitude Wind

Today’s wind turbines typically operate 250 feet off the ground where wind is intermittent, but if they could reach 10 times higher, or high enough to access the jet stream, they could capture winds that are much stronger and steadier.

Google.

Good for Google. It is awesome to see a company at least make the attempt to become more ecologically responsible. However, as far as China goes, you should really see what they do there, nothing about that country states that they are trying to be ecologically responsible.

Questioning your figures

FYI:

Your first paragraph claims that "global investment in the [energy] sector fell to $5.6bn". This is obviously incorrect by several orders of magnitude, and the reference you provided seems to be referring to CLEAN energy specifically---an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Furthermore, even the $5.6bn figure for clean energy seems suspect; put the figure closer to $150bn.

Figures

Alan;
You're correct. That number refers specifically to cleantech venture investment in the major world markets, and that wasn't clear in the original paragraph. That's been fixed, with more details added in from the UNEP report that you pointed out.
Thank you for letting us know.
-The Managing Editor

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