Where’s Google Putting Its Money?

From Solar to Geothermal, High-Altitude Wind to Hybrids

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The International Energy Agency projects that global energy demand will increase 46 percent by 2030, requiring an investment of $26.3 trillion in energy infrastructure to meet the expected demand.

Revamping our energy system and doing so with more renewable energy will take substantial funding, and while some countries, like China, are investing in the whole cleantech pipeline, from “lightbulb to lightbulb” — from idea to implementation, as Google puts it — the U.S. is investing in cleantech only sporadically.

“We need to invest across that whole spectrum, and we need to make that sustained,” said Bill Weihl, Google’s Green Energy Czar.

Google, for one, is putting its money where its mouth is.

“Other companies of comparable size are doing a lot in corporate social responsibility, but no one else is putting the amount of money into energy generation and breakthrough science that Google is," said Dallas Kachan, managing director at the industry analyst Cleantech Group.

Because it is a major energy consumer, Google is highly motivated to minimize its energy use and invest in renewable energy, both for its bottom line and its image, and it has largely been able to avoid criticism for its “astronomical” use of power because of its cleantech investments, noted Kachan.

Besides promoting policy with Clean Energy 2030, a plan to wean the U.S. off coal and oil for electricity by 2030, Google is investing in cleantech on several fronts: developing utility scale renewable energy that can compete straight up with coal, and supporting commercial adoption of plug-in vehicles. Google aims to drive the costs of both down and roll out innovative and scalable solutions within 3 to 7 years. Its solar installation, Power Meter, venture capital fund, and Google Energy are further examples of the company’s expanding reach into the clean energy sector.

Here’s a look at how Google is putting its money to work:


Since 2007, Google has invested over $45 million in efforts to make renewable energy cost less than coal with its program RE<C.

Because most people will not or cannot pay a premium for renewable energy, Weihl believes we will only stop burning coal and embrace renewables when they can compete on an equal footing. To make this happen, Google is pushing the envelope on advanced solar thermal power, high altitude wind technology, and enhanced geothermal systems, through research and strategic grants made by Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm.

Google’s goal is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy (enough to power San Francisco) within a few years.

Solar Thermal Power

Solar thermal power plants concentrate the sun’s energy several hundred times over to heat something hot enough to make steam that then drives a turbine to generate electricity. Google engineers are researching ways to design and build systems that are more reliable, efficient, and less costly, and that can achieve higher temperatures.

Google.org has invested $10 million in two California companies, eSolar and BrightSource Energy, which are developing scalable solar thermal power plants using arrays of flat mirrors, called heliostats, that swivel to track the sun and direct its rays onto a receiver on a “power tower.” The receiver heats up and makes steam to drive a turbine.

Last year, eSolar contracted with NRG Energy to create a 92-megawatt solar thermal power plant in New Mexico. It has also licensed its technology to a Chinese company for a 2,000-megawatt solar thermal project. BrightSource has contracts to supply Southern California Edison with 1,300 megawatts of electricity, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company with 1,310 megawatts.

High Altitude Wind

Today’s wind turbines typically operate 250 feet off the ground where wind is intermittent, but if they could reach 10 times higher, or high enough to access the jet stream, they could capture winds that are much stronger and steadier.

Google invested $15 million in California’s Makani Power, which is researching high altitude wind extraction technology involving a kite or other autonomous vehicle that could fly a power generator high enough to capture stronger and steadier winds. According to Makani, high altitude wind delivers more energy per square foot than any other renewable source.

Enhanced Geothermal Systems

Unlike traditional geothermal power generation that taps areas with hot water close to the surface underground and uses that heat to make electricity, enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) involve drilling three to 10 kilometers deep where it is always hundreds of degrees centigrade. The rock is then fractured to create a space into which water or another fluid is injected to capture the heat.

If EGS could be done cost effectively, it could potentially provide power anywhere in the world, 24/7. Because deep drilling is expensive, Google has invested $4 million in Potter Drilling, a California company developing an innovative drilling technique called “spallation” which could lower the cost of commercial drilling. Spallation removes rock by directing a high intensity fluid into it.

Google has also invested $6.25 million in AltaRock Energy, which is building EGS projects. AltaRock’s project near San Francisco shut down in September because of fears that earthquake risk from the drilling had not been sufficiently examined. The Energy Department determined that any earthquakes triggered by the drilling would not have had a “significant impact on the human environment,” but is establishing stricter safeguards for EGS. AltaRock has also received $25 million from stimulus funds for an EGS project in Oregon.


Because a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from the transportation sector, Google believes that battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles offer the best opportunity we currently have to cut transportation emissions.

RechargeIT, Google’s project to reduce carbon emissions, cut oil use and stabilize the grid, spurs the implementation of plug-in vehicles, which can get 70-100 miles per gallon and use mainly electricity for their first 20-40 miles. Since 70 percent of Americans drive less than 33 miles each day, plug-in hybrids could enable many commuters to use no gasoline at all. The grid has enough capacity today to fuel three fourths of all U.S. cars, based on driving 33 miles per day.

Plug-in Hybrid Demos

The RechargeIT Driving Experiment compared seven models of cars for mileage, carbon emissions, and energy costs. Results included: The Ford Expedition got 14.2 miles per gallon, emitted 1.666 pounds of CO2 per mile, for a total energy cost of $31.90 per 100 miles; the regular Toyota Prius got 48.4 mpg, emitted .487 pounds of CO2 per mile, and cost $9.34 per 100 miles; and the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid got 93.5 mpg, emitted .321 pounds of C02 per mile, and cost $6.90 per 100 miles. To further evaluate plug-in technology, RechargeIT launched the GFleet, a free car-sharing program for Google employees utilizing regular and plug-in hybrid Priuses that makes the performance data available online.

Plug-in Investments

Google invested $2.75 million in California’s Aptera Moters, which is developing a plug-in called the 2e, a lighter, more aerodynamic vehicle made with recycled and sustainable materials. Texas-based Acta Cell received $2.75 million from Google for its work on the next generation of high power lithium batteries that will last longer and cost less.

In addition, Dr. Willett Kempton from the University of Delaware received a grant of $150,000 for his research on vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology. The V2G vision is that plug-in vehicles would be charged at night when electricity is cheaper and store the excess electricity in their batteries, which could then be sold back to the grid to supply extra power when it’s needed. An electric vehicle can discharge over 19 kilowatts (the average home uses 1.5 kilowatts), and since most cars are driven only one hour a day, many have electricity to spare.

The idea was successfully tested in 2007, when a plug-in vehicle responded to a signal from PJM, the largest grid operator in the Northeast, and released a surge of power to help balance the grid’s supply and demand. Currently, the U.S. grid does not have the capability to communicate with vehicles, so scalable V2G would require a substantial investment to transform the grid into a smart grid; however, V2G could be implemented today with a "smart garage.”

Both Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are also investors in Tesla Motors, which is developing all-electric, zero-emission vehicles and announced last week that it had filed to go public.

Using Renewable Power

Google created a 1.6-megawatt solar installation on eight buildings and two carports at its Mountain View headquarters to help achieve its goal of being carbon neutral. The solar panels provide almost one third of the peak power needed for the buildings they are on, equivalent to powering 1,000 homes. The solar installation, which also charges the GFleet, has produced 6,177,226 kilowatts since June 2007.

Google Ventures

Last March, Google launched Google Ventures, a $100 million fund, to invest in outstanding and innovative startups. The fund’s first cleantech investment was California based Silver Spring Networks, which provides smart grid hardware, software and services. Silver Spring is working with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), providing the network infrastructure for SMUD’s project of replacing standard meters with smart meters for 600,000 residents.

Recently, Dan Reicher, Google’s Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, announced that Google would soon also begin financing solar farms, wind farms and other renewable power plants, because startups with new technology often don’t have sufficient money to get off the ground.

Google Energy

Unveiled in December, Google Energy, LLC has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to market electricity, which would allow it to buy and sell bulk electricity as a utility company does. For now, Google claims, the purpose of Google Energy is to help manage the company’s considerable energy consumption and reach its goal of carbon neutrality. If FERC approves its application, Google will be able to save money by buying energy on the wholesale market, gain more access to renewable energy, and sell credits for the surplus.

More Money for Cleantech

In 2009, clean technology venture investments in North America, Europe, China and India totaled about $5.6 billion, according to the Cleantech Group. Globally, a United Nations Environment Program report puts 2009’s total new investment in renewable energy projects at $117 billion, including about $13.5 billion in new private investment in companies developing and scaling-up new technologies, including energy efficiency.

The U.S. stimulus fund allotted over $78 billion for clean energy, smart grid technology, energy efficiency and green transportation. But “There is a serious risk of falling off a serious funding cliff when these investments run out,” said Dan Reicher.

The good news for cleantech is that the private sector appears ready to step into the breach. A recent survey by KPMG LLP found that a majority of venture capitalists expect venture capital investments to increase in 2010, and cleantech is their favorite sector. Ira Ehrenpreis of Technology Partners also predicts that an important trend will be acquisitions by major corporations "seeking to shore up their clean-tech portfolio."

Here are some corporations that have already made substantial cleantech investments:

    Intel Capital: energy generation and storage, transportation, consumption, transmission, and distribution.

    IBM Venture Capital Group: energy efficient technologies, alternative energy, smart grid, intelligent transportation systems, and sustainable solutions.

    Chevron Technology Ventures Investments emerging and alternative energy, including biofuels, and renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and wave.

    Dupont Ventures: biofuels and biomass, air pollution control, energy storage, solar, and green building materials.

    GE Ecoimagination: advanced battery technology, carbon composite wind blades, smart grid, and nano-based materials in solar technology.

Early adopters always influence the larger sector, according to Dallas Kachan.

“Google is one of the few companies the world is paying attention to because it is looking to break the mold and dramatically challenge the status quo of renewable energy technologies,” said Kachan. “They’re a company to watch in terms of where they’re putting money to work in cleantech.”


See also:

Cleantech Investing Drops 33% in 2009, But Recovery Hope Grows

For Stocks, 2009 Marked Rise of Energy Efficiency, Electric Cars

Report Urges U.S.-China Cleantech Partnership, Not Competition

Five Big Surprises on the Global Cleantech 100 List

What’s Next in Smart Grid? IBM Picks 5 Companies to Watch

(Photo: Google complex with solar panels, courtesy of Google)

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