Google's latest ambition: Create renewable power that's cheaper than coal

If you’re a renewable energy expert, Google has a proposition for you.The company’s latest part-philanthropic/part-capitalistic initiative from its Google.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

If you’re a renewable energy expert, Google has a proposition for you.

The company’s latest part-philanthropic/part-capitalistic initiative from its Google.org arm aims for nothing less than displacing the coal industry’s dominance as the primary supplier of electricity. (Roughly 40 percent of the world’s supply.)

Under the effort, aptly dubbed Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal, Google plans to hire 20 to 30 experts next year with backgrounds in solar, wind and other renewable energy resources. These people will join the “hundreds” who work in its data center research and development, many of whom are experts in energy usage. I guess they'd have to be, or the company would be out of business. In addition, Google said it will invest “tens of millions” on its own research and development as well as “hundreds of millions” on what it calls breakthrough energy projects.

The ultimate goal for Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal, according to Google cofounder and President of Products Larry Page, is to create at least one gigawatt of capacity as quickly as possible (or roughly the equivalent of the energy it would take to power the city of San Francisco). “We are optimistic that this can be done in a matter of years not decades,” he said, during a briefing over the telephone to launch the initiative.

What happens to this capacity isn’t exactly clear. Some of it will certainly be sold (Page: “Just providing power for Google is not enough for us”) effectively turning Google into a utility company.

Some of it could also be used by Google itself to power its enormous data centers. The company’s founders flatout refused, as they have in the past, to disclose how much energy Google uses for its own corporate operations. Page will only say that the company has engineers working to make sure the company is as energy-efficient as possible. For example, there is a 1.6-megawatt solar installation at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., campus.

The motivation for the new project was borne out of the Google cofounders’ conviction that energy is one key to addressing economic disparity and health issues, especially in third world countries where electricity is not readily available. Addressing these issues is the aim of Google.org. “Climate change is a very important reason for this announcement,” said Sergey Brin, Google cofounder and president of technology. “But it’s not the only reason. There are many places where cheap affordable electricity just isn’t available.”

Echoes Page: “Energy can really drive economies and people’s qualities of life.”

Google hasn’t committed to any particular energy source over another as the answer to its (and our) problems. Its main interest is in ensuring scale—and getting to market as quickly as possible. It already is working with two companies: eSolar, a solar technology that works to replace the fuel source in a traditional power plant; and Makani Power, which works on high-altitude wind extraction technologies. And here is some additional information about where Google is casting its lot.

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