Several other considerations factored into the company’s decision to emphasize energy, according to Reicher. Google is a significant user of electricity at its data centers in the United States and throughout the world. Furthermore, when Google has tried to procure green electricity for its data centers, the company has found it to be either nonexistent or very expensive. Also, the company has been reluctant to buy carbon offsets, since it has not been convinced that “when all is said and done [offsets] are really driving the kind of change we need.”
Google also employs thousands of engineers, many of whom have mechanical, electrical, or energy backgrounds and are eager to work on energy challenges. With government and university research underfunded, and even with large amounts of venture money flowing into clean energy technologies, not enough funding is finding its way to high-risk and high-potential technologies. Plus, said Reicher, not enough of that money is finding its way to large-scale commercialization of high-risk technologies—the “so-called Valley of Death commercialization projects.”
A sustainable energy future requires three elements, according to Reicher. Technologies need to be developed. Smart policies need to be put in place. And there must be adequate capital to make the multitrillion-dollar transition to sustainable energy systems.
Google has launched two main initiatives. The first is called Renewable Electricity Cheaper Than Coal, or RE < C. The initiative reflects the prominent place of coal in electricity generation, both in the United States and around the world. Replacing or mitigating the effects of coal burning is “a big, big challenge in terms of the global climate crisis,” Reicher said. Coal-fired plants currently account for 500,000 megawatts of capacity in the United States, compared to a total installed wind capacity of 12,000 megawatts. Furthermore, the capacity of coal-fired plants is projected to grow dramatically, both in the United States and in other countries. For example, China installed almost 100,000 megawatts of conventional coal-fired power plants in 2006 alone.
There is considerable optimism about the prospects for renewable energy from the public and the investment community. But renewable sources of energy are not now economical compared with coal, Reicher observed. On the contrary, the price of electricity from renewable sources can be as much as four to five times the cost of electricity from coal. “Our observation was that there needs to be a fundamental change in the cost structure of renewables if we really expect them to be able to compete.”
RE < C has the goal of making renewable electricity competitive with coal, and in a period of years rather than decades. In particular, the project is seeking to generate from renewable resources a gigawatt of electricity—enough to power the city of San Francisco—that is cheaper than the electricity from coal.