“The Best Way to Predict the Future Is to Invent It”
This iconic quote from Alan Kay, the computer science pioneer, provided an appropriate context for a recent presentation given by Dan Reicher, Google’s Director of Climate and Energy Initiatives. Mr. Reicher addressed a full auditorium at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) describing Google.org’s endeavors to invent our energy future. He also discussed the more than $50B for clean energy in the recent federal stimulus package that he helped develop as a member of President Obama’s transition team.
Inventing a new energy future will depend on advances in technology, better governmental policy, and an adequate supply of capital, according to Reicher. Google is working in all three areas. They began by using more than $1 billion of Google stock to capitalize Google.org whose mission is to make investments, advance policy and develop products. And although it will likely require trillions of dollars to transform our energy systems, when it comes to inventing the future, a billion dollars is a pretty good start.
On the technology front, Reicher provided an overview of Google.org’s three primary energy initiatives:
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Reicher offered another well known adage to describe the thinking behind Power Meter, an application that can provide real time, on-line information about your home energy use. Eventually this will be available as an IGoogle gadget you can get on your Google home page or smartphone (hopefully Google’s smartphone).
Some 200 Google engineers are trialing Power Meter, and quickly learning the value of real time energy data. Reicher told the story of one engineer who never realized the old, second refrigerator in his garage, which was mostly used to cool off a few six packs, accounted for a major portion of his energy bill each month. Building on the Android model, Power Meter will be developed with open standards to encourage the growth of a developer community.
Google’s RechargeIT program aims to reduce CO2 emissions, cut oil use, and stabilize the electrical grid by accelerating the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles. The Google plug-in demonstration fleet lives under a solar-panel-covered parking structure at the Mountain View headquarters. Data is collected when the plug-ins are driven by Google employees in a free car-share program. Reicher described Google’s efforts in the Vehicle to Grid (V2G) area, where large fleets of plug in hybrids could also be used to store energy at night for return to the grid. Providing large scale storage solutions as part of the smart grid is often considered one of the primary challenges to migrating our energy system to renewables like wind and solar.
The Renewable Electricity Cheaper than Coal (RE<C) program works on technologies to lower the cost of solar, wind and geothermal energy through engineering, investment, policy and information. Reicher was especially keen on Google.org’s involvement with Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) which goes beyond traditional geothermal technologies that depend on naturally occurring underground heat sources. Using drilling techniques developed by the oil industry, EGS can create geothermal systems through hydraulic stimulation, basically pumping water into the rock. EGS has the potential of expanding traditional geothermal energy “by orders of magnitude” and has “the potential to power the world many times over.”
Google plans to use Google Earth and Google Maps to assist in locating high-potential EGS sites. (“Google is after all an information company,” Reicher reminded the audience.) Based on the work they’ve done so far, he described Nevada as the “Saudi Arabia of geothermal.” Germany, France, Japan and Australia are spending big on EGS. The largest EGS project in the world is currently being developed in the Cooper Basin, Australia – with the potential to generate 5,000-10,000 MW.
The good news for all of us is the US government is finally getting engaged, after a dismal period of wealthy oilmen in charge. Reicher has had a direct impact on the policy front, as a member of Obama’s transition team where he focused on the energy portions of the stimulus package. The $50B for clean energy in the recent package will be focused on R&D, loan guarantees, and tax credits primarily in the areas of the smart grid, energy efficiency, and renewables.
Reicher served as Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy in the Clinton Administration. He joined Google in 2007. The outstanding PARC Cleantech Forum Series has focused on new technologies as well as resource and policy issues that will shape the energy landscape over the next several decades. The Series is co-sponsored by PARC, Electrical Power Research Institute (EPRI), University of California at Berkeley, and NASA Ames Research Center. The Series ends on April 16, 2009, but you can get links to past lectures at the PARC forum website.
(Graphics courtesy of Google.org.)