Google Pushing Solar Technology — Hard

Frustrated with the lack of progress cutting the cost of solar thermal energy, Google, a prominent supporter of the technology, is privately working on ways to lower cost.

Google’s Green Energy Czar Bill Weihl says it is working on lowering the production cost of the mirrors that are a primary component of solar thermal power by at least a factor of two, “ideally a factor of three or four,” according to Reuters.

Weihl says Google will not be working with any other companies on the technology — an odd decision, given that Google has already invested in two solar thermal companies that use mirrors to produce power.

The Other Solar Power

Solar thermal plants typically rely on mirrors which focus the sun’s energy to superheat water or some other substance, which then drives a generator. Solar thermal should not be confused with solar photovoltaic (PV) power, which transforms solar energy into electric current through the photovoltaic effect, and is the technology behind solar panels.

Both technologies have been competing for renewable energy generation contracts from utilities, both industries argue that their technology will be cheapest in the long run, and, while both could be right, both are also still about twice the price of coal powered electricity.

Through its philanthropic arm, Google.org, the Internet giant has invested in two solar thermal companies, eSolar, of Pasadena, and BrightSource, of Oakland. Google’s aggressive and unilateral move into solar thermal power provided a big boost solar thermal, financially but also, perhaps more importantly, from a PR standpoint.

Frustration in Mountain View

But beyond those investments, Google has not been able to invest as much as it hoped. In an interview, Weihl said a lack of “breakthrough ideas” and funding for ideas in their early stages has led the Internet giant to invest less than it expected — less than $50 million so far. From the Reuters piece:

“I would say it’s reasonable to be a little bit discouraged there and from my point of view, it’s not right to be seriously discouraged,” he said. “There isn’t enough investment going into the early stages of investment pipeline before the venture funds come into the play.”

For all of Google’s renewable energy investments: click here.

Michael Kallenos, in an interesting article for Greentech Media, suggests that Google, by taking on development of solar thermal technology itself, may be biting off more than it can chew. Solar thermal mirrors and computer programming have very little overlap, beyond requiring very smart people for their design.

More Bad News

On Friday, Brightsource dropped plans for a solar thermal plant in the Mojave Desert, after US Senator Diane Feinstein agreed to submit legislation to make the proposed site part of a new national monument.

Brightsource’s failure to secure the Mojave site is not a good sign for the solar power industry, and renewable energy in general. Because solar and wind energy plants produce less electricity per site than coal, gas or nuclear, they will require many more sites to produce the same amount of electricity, which means many more land-rights battles like Brightsource’s, which could slow growth and drive up costs.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.