Google “renewable energy” today and you’re likely to come up with – Google. (How many companies can claim both a verb and a noun for their name?)
As everyone reading this blog (or any blog) knows, it wasn’t that long ago that anyone even uttering such a phrase as “Just google it”, would have probably been met with muffled titters, sideways glances, and quiet whispers questioning the utterer’s grip on reality.
Google has since changed that reality and aims at, just possibly, doing it again. This time in the area of renewable energy.
The company announced today their Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal initiative (or RE<C) with the stated goal of producing 1 gigawatt of renewable energy, enough to power the city of San Francisco, and to do it within years, not decades, as some less ambitious pundits claim such a goal would require.
Google says it will commit “hundreds of millions of dollars” to the effort in hopes that doing so will spur innovation and make renewable energy sources like solar and wind an economic rival to coal.
Google’s effort is one of environmental vision as well as fiscal responsibility, as the term sustainable IT takes on a pragmatic dimension for server rooms across the globe beyond merely “being green”. Much like any truly sustainable business model must be.
In the Clouds and Tethered to the Ground – But What About Uncle Sam?
Two organizations partnering with Google in the RE<C project are Makani Power and eSolar Inc.
Makani Power seeks to develop technology that will harvest high altitude wind. As yet an unproven concept, the startup won’t reveal how they plan to accomplish this, but it most likely involves the use of turbines secured to a “kite” or “sail” with energy transferred to the ground via a tether.
On the other hand, eSolar works with an already proven technology known as “solar thermal”, basically focusing sunlight to create heat, converting the heat to steam, and the steam to generate electricity. There are already solar thermal power plants in operation, the largest of which is in the Mojave Desert, coming online in 1987. The challenge is to lower the cost of production and major utilities, such as California’s Pacific Gas and Electric, are showing renewed interest in the technology. One advantage of solar thermal for large energy producers over photo-voltaic cells is that solar thermal plants can produce the same amount of energy as a mid-sized natural gas burning plant.
Google’s commitment to innovation is a hallmark of the company’s success. Through that success and vision they are able motivate and underwrite innovation in other organizations, such as Makani and eSolar, pushing forward toward the reality of renewable energy that is “cheaper than coal”.
I have to wonder where government is in this venture. In his 2006 State of the Union address, George Bush proclaimed that America was “addicted to oil”, and yet many in government still find a solution to that addiction in drilling for more oil, mining more coal, and continuing our fossil fuel ways into the foreseeable future.
Google is big, but the United States government is bigger. If the federal government were to really take Bush’s statement seriously we could incentivize the conversion to a renewable energy economy much like we converted to a full-scale oil-based economy in the years after World War II.
It is very encouraging to see the efforts of Google and others, but all elements of society will eventually need to get on board to accomplish what must be accomplished to achieve a sustainable energy future.
In the meantime, nearly a trillion dollars are spent to wage war, Congress struggles to pass even a modest 35MPG Cafe Standard (by 2020), and the good ‘ol boy network of entrenched power made wealthy on oil slap each other on the back and continue to resist substantive change.
Talk is cheap. In Washington, it seems to me on particularly bad days, it is all but worthless.
In the meantime, companies like Google are putting their money where their mouth is.