The initiative is focusing on solar thermal energy, photovoltaic energy, wind power, enhanced geothermal systems, and electricity transmission and storage. In addition, it is approaching the problem through the triangle of technology, policy, and finance, Reicher said. First, Google is hiring scientists and engineers who will work on key renewable energy challenges. It is funding external research and development in universities and other institutions. And it has a “reasonably significant amount of money” to invest in high-risk technology companies and in high-risk early-stage commercialization projects.
Google also has considered how the information tools available at Google and elsewhere such as Google Earth, Google Maps, and You Tube could influence the use of energy. For example, Google Earth could be used to capture data about renewable energy resources. Then transmission resources, policy incentives, and other useful information could be layered on top of the resources information. Such a resource could provide information to everyone from consumers to technologists to policymakers. As another example, a pilot project using Google Maps available on a mobile unit can show a person where public transportation is available, how the travel time compares with a car’s, and the relative carbon emissions between the two. “There are lots of interesting things that you can do to give people options.”
The “smartness” in a home, a vehicle, or an electric grid is in many respects a function of information, Reicher said. He encourages people “to think about where information and energy intersect. Ultimately, I think that’s our greatest potential.”
So far Google has made just a few modest investments, with more in the works. For example, it has invested $10 million in an advanced solar thermal company called E-Solar, which is using large mirror-based systems to turn solar energy into steam and then electricity. It also has invested $10 million in a pioneering high-altitude wind energy technology company. The strongest wind speeds are not at 50 or 100 meters above the ground but at 5,000 to 10,000 meters and higher. If a way could be found to tap those winds, wind power could be much greater and more consistent. “So we put some money into a company … that is looking at some very interesting technologies, admittedly very high-risk technologies, that might allow us to capture this resource.” The company also is interested in cellulosic ethanol, where large-scale plants will be hard to finance because of their high risk.
“We’re doing what other venture capital entities do, which is go out and canvas the landscape worldwide looking for the most compelling investment opportunities. The difference with us is that we don’t have some of the constraints of the venture world.” Google does not need to see a return on investment in 3 to 6 years or have exit strategies in place. “We can tolerate higher risks in our investments [and] lower returns.”
In the policy arena, the company is looking at traditional tools, but it also is asking itself whether there are ways to be more creative. For example, the