Google Inc is closing in on its goal of producing renewable energy at a price cheaper than coal, the company’s green energy czar Bill Weihl, the engineer in charge of the project, said on Tuesday.
“We have gained expertise in designing and building large-scale, energy-intensive facilities by building efficient data centers,” said Larry Page, Google Co-founder and President of Products. “We want to apply the same creativity and innovation to the challenge of generating renewable electricity at globally significant scale, and produce it cheaper than from coal.”But the United States needs to raise government-backed research significantly and take much bigger risks if it wants to make alternative energy mainstream, executive Bill Weihl told Reuters in an interview.
Page added, “There has been tremendous work already on renewable energy. Technologies have been developed that can mature into industries capable of providing electricity cheaper than coal. Solar thermal technology, for example, provides a very plausible path to providing renewable energy cheaper than coal. We are also very interested in further developing other technologies that have potential to be cost-competitive and green. We are aware of several promising technologies, and believe there are many more out there.”
Page continued, “With talented technologists, great partners and significant investments, we hope to rapidly push forward. Our goal is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper than coal. We are optimistic this can be done in years, not decades.” (One gigawatt can power a city the size of San Francisco.)
“If we meet this goal,” said Page, “and large-scale renewable deployments are cheaper than coal, the world will have the option to meet a substantial portion of electricity needs from renewable sources and significantly reduce carbon emissions. We expect this would be a good business for us as well.”
Coal is the primary power source for many around the world, supplying 40% of the world’s electricity. The greenhouse gases it produces are one of our greatest environmental challenges. Making electricity produced from renewable energy cheaper than coal would be a key part of reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Cheap renewable energy is not only critical for the environment but also vital for economic development in many places where there is limited affordable energy of any kind,” added Sergey Brin, Google Co-founder and President of Technology.
“Lots of groups are doing great work trying to produce inexpensive renewable energy. We want to add something that moves these efforts toward even cheaper technologies a bit more quickly. Usual investment criteria may not deliver the super low-cost, clean, renewable energy soon enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change,” said Dr. Larry Brilliant, Executive Director of Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm, “Google.org’s hope is that by funding research on promising technologies, investing in promising new companies, and doing a lot of R&D ourselves, we may help spark a green electricity revolution that will deliver breakthrough technologies priced lower than coal.”
Working with RE<C, Google.org will make strategic investments and grants that demonstrate a path toward producing energy at an unsubsidized cost below that of coal-fired power plants. Google will work with a variety of organizations in the renewable energy field, including companies, R&D laboratories, and universities. For example, Google.org is working with two companies that have promising scalable energy technologies:
eSolar Inc., a Pasadena, CA-based company specializing in solar thermal power which replaces the fuel in a traditional power plant with heat produced from solar energy. eSolar’s technology has great potential to produce utility-scale power cheaper than coal.
Makani Power Inc., an Alameda, CA-based company developing high-altitude wind energy extraction technologies aimed at harnessing the most powerful wind resources. High-altitude wind energy has the potential to satisfy a significant portion of current global electricity needs.
Google, known for its Internet search engine, in late 2007 said it would invest in companies and do research of its own to produce affordable renewable energy — at a price less than burning coal — within a few years.
The often-quirky company cast the move as a philanthropic effort to address climate change, but the work is done by a unit of the for-profit corporation, Google.org, and Google investors will profit from any breakthroughs.
The story of its pursuit of cheap, clean energy became an overnight phenomenon, and Chief Executive Eric Schmidt conferred with U.S. President Barack Obama on economic revival and green jobs.
Weihl said the odds of success had gone up in the last year or so from a long shot to a real possibility of demonstrating working technology in a few years’ time.
“It is even odds, more or less,” he said. “In three years, we could have multiple megawatts of plants out there.”
The company has made investments in advanced geothermal and wind, but engineers inside Google are focused mostly on solar thermal, in which the sun’s energy is used to heat up a substance that produces steam to turn a turbine. Mirrors focus the sun’s rays on the heated substance.
By contrast, photovoltaic solar cells, the most commonly known form of solar power, turn the sun’s rays directly into electricity.
“We are looking at ways of cheaply getting to much higher temperatures and also making the heliostats, the fields of mirrors that have to track the sun, reflect the sun, keep it focused on the target we are trying to heat up, make those much, much cheaper. And I think we’ve made some really interesting progress in the last six to nine months,” he said.
Google’s investment has been modest, so far. The company has put less than $50 million into clean energy start-ups, while the efforts of Weihl’s group are probably about $10 million or $20 million. Deploying technology on a large scale, however, would not be cheap, he said.
If the test project is successful, “we’ll see whether we or us in combination with other people are prepared to fund much, much bigger facilities, or if we want to get a few more years’ experience before we really start to scale it up,” said Weihl.
Still, the United States is not making enough of the start-up, risky investments it needs, he argued.
“As a society we need much more, and it needs to be sustained,” Weihl said, calling recent funding in the U.S. economic stimulus bill a good start.
Coal is plentiful and cheap in the United States and China, making it a crucial source of both power and the carbon dioxide that produces global warming. So producing carbon-free energy for less than the price of coal is seen as a yardstick for the renewable energy industry’s success.
Part of the process will be hitting dead ends, he added. Years from now, investors should be telling themselves that, in retrospect, some of the efforts were stupid.
“If we are not saying that about some things, then we are not taking the risks we need to take to actually find the breakthrough innovations we need,” said Weihl.
For more information on eSolar, please visit http://www.google.com/corporate/green/energy/esolar.pdf.
For more information on Makani Power, please visit http://www.google.com/corporate/green/energy/makani.pdf.