For several years Google has shown that it is more than just a cutting-edge provider of web search, email, and software applications for the cloud. The Mountain View, CA-based Internet giant has been investing in renewable energy projects over the past decade, and in 2007, it launched RE<C (renewable energy cheaper than coal), an initiative that will work to create scalable renewable electricity cheaper than energy from coal. Now Google has taken a huge step: yesterday the company announced it has invested US$38.8 million in a North Dakota wind energy farm.
For Google, the wind farm bolsters the company’s track record of promoting renewable energy. It has already invested heavily in solar energy though its technology-driven philanthropic division, Google.org, in companies like eSolar and Brightsource. Google has also been a large customer of Bloom Energy’s “Bloom Box” fuel cell technology. Most exciting, its RechargeIT program seeks to accelerate the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles. As far as scale goes, however, this wind project is Google’s most impressive move to date.
Google’s latest investment is crucial for several reasons: first, for any firm, the Ashtabula wind farm is a template for future successful renewable energy investments. The turbines use blades that boasts 15% more swept area than earlier generations of wind mills, and their blades can continually adjust for maximum efficiency. The control systems can also be monitored remotely 24/7. All these factors allow the wind farm to create cheap energy for the local grid.
And by investing in local energy infrastructure, not just showy projects for green IT schemes such as its data centers, Google is also playing smart politics. Talking about renewable energy does not resonate with many Americans in the heartland—in fact, it horrifies them. The average North Dakota farmer (who, by the way, raises many of the beans and lentils that find their way into your favorite vegetarian restaurant’s menu), relies on petroleum for operating his farm equipment, fertilizing the land, and driving many miles to buy supplies in outposts that are not served by public transportation. Any talk in Washington, DC, that offers the smallest hint of an increase in energy price will send these powerful folks into a tizzy. That is not only the political reality: because of the way the US Constitution is written, many sparsely populated farm and ranching states like the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska have disproportionate power in the Senate: 11% of the population can stop any legislation in Congress with a filibuster.
Therefore, Google’s commitment to this wind farm in North Dakota can show large swaths of the United States that investment in renewable energy not only reaps cleaner energy, but can be a pragmatic and practical solution to areas that are heavily reliant on coal and oil. Between the tragedy in the Gulf, the new offshore wind energy farm set to rise off Massachusetts, and Google’s latest move, we are in for a wild renewable energy ride full of debates, arguments, and hopefully, solid solutions to our energy woes. Fasten your seat belts for the next several months!