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Google Launches Initiative to Develop Renewable Energy “Cheaper than Coal”

Google has launched a new strategic initiative to develop electricity from renewable energy sources. The newly created initiative, known as RE<C, will focus initially on advanced solar thermal power, wind power technologies, enhanced geothermal systems and other potential breakthrough technologies with the goal of producing one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper than coal.

“We are optimistic this can be done in years, not decades,” said Larry Page, Google co-founder and President of Products.

RE<C is hiring engineers and energy experts to lead its research and development work, which will begin with a significant effort on solar thermal technology, and will also investigate enhanced geothermal systems and other areas.

In 2008, Google expects to spend tens of millions on research and development and related investments in renewable energy. As part of its capital planning process, the company also anticipates investing hundreds of millions of dollars in breakthrough renewable energy projects which generate positive returns.

We have gained expertise in designing and building large-scale, energy-intensive facilities by building efficient data centers. We want to apply the same creativity and innovation to the challenge of generating renewable electricity at globally significant scale, and produce it cheaper than from coal.

There has been tremendous work already on renewable energy. Technologies have been developed that can mature into industries capable of providing electricity cheaper than coal. Solar thermal technology, for example, provides a very plausible path to providing renewable energy cheaper than coal. We are also very interested in further developing other technologies that have potential to be cost-competitive and green. We are aware of several promising technologies, and believe there are many more out there.

—Larry Page, Google Co-founder and President of Products

Lots of groups are doing great work trying to produce inexpensive renewable energy. We want to add something that moves these efforts toward even cheaper technologies a bit more quickly. Usual investment criteria may not deliver the super low-cost, clean, renewable energy soon enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Google.org’s hope is that by funding research on promising technologies, investing in promising new companies, and doing a lot of R&D ourselves, we may help spark a green electricity revolution that will deliver breakthrough technologies priced lower than coal.

—Dr. Larry Brilliant, Executive Director of Google.org

Working with RE<C, Google.org will make strategic investments and grants that demonstrate a path toward producing energy at an unsubsidized cost below that of coal-fired power plants. Google will work with a variety of organizations in the renewable energy field, including companies, R&D laboratories, and universities. For example, Google.org is working with two companies that have promising scalable energy technologies:

  • eSolar Inc., a Pasadena, CA-based company specializing in solar thermal power which replaces the fuel in a traditional power plant with heat produced from solar energy. eSolar’s technology has great potential to produce utility-scale power cheaper than coal.

  • Makani Power Inc., an Alameda, CA-based company developing high-altitude wind energy extraction technologies aimed at harnessing the most powerful wind resources.

Earlier this year, Google launched the RechargeIT initiative, including a $10 million request for investment proposals, to accelerate the adoption of plug-in hybrid vehicles. (Earlier post.)

Comments

Cervus

Congress is looking at Thorium as nuclear fuel again, as a safer (and more plentiful) alternative to uranium.

Also, in 2006 Dr. Bussard made a pitch to Google to fund his research into polywell fusion. It's a pity nothing came of that directly (and the Navy has since decided to fund the next prototypes anyway, even with Dr. Bussard's passing).

Aussie

A couple of quibbles about what 'cheaper than coal' could mean. Obviously carbon taxed coal based electricity is more expensive so that shrinks the gap. Some say to justify the cost of carbon capture and storage the wholesale price has to nearly double. Secondly with intermittent forms of generation enthusiasts tend to quote a best case marginal cost. If solar thermal can supply baseload power as claimed then we want a 24/7 price per kilowatt-hour, say 3 or 4 cents.

I'd factor in the cost of lawsuits if a plane hit one of the tethered flying windmills.

Ray

A nice idea, but people still ignore that a growing economy does not go along with renewable energies. Apart from costs, which may still come down, there are problems associated with the technical potential (solar thermal needs a huge amount of land to provide the same energy as a nuclear or coal plant), the reliability and also coordination aspects (which wind turbines deliver energy, which back-up plant has to operate?). IMHO, renewable energy systems can only work on a regional level. Downscaling is the ultimate solution.

"I'd factor in the cost of lawsuits if a plane hit one of the tethered flying windmills."

What an utterly silly comment. Seen many lawsuits from planes hitting, say, towers, buildings, power lines? See many lawsuits from drivers who hit telephone poles, buildings, whatever? No? Of course not, silly man. In fact, the owners of a known fixed structure or object will sue the operator of the plane or car that hits that known fixed structure or object.

K

Well, Google certainly has the money. And their founders are activists who will probably endure loses indefinitely.

I don't imply these must be money losing in the long run, just that patience will be needed. No matter they intend to spend they will find it isn't enough. They themselves say

"Usual investment criteria may not deliver the super low-cost, clean, renewable energy soon enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change."

The two thermal technology initiatives - solar and geo - seem more interesting than wind. As I understand it wind is mostly a political problem, no one wants the towers nearby or in anyplace they might like to visit or someone else might like to visit or a bird might like to visit, or.......

Lad

Someone has to step in to do the government's work while our tax money is being spent on a useless, goal-less war, justified by lies and promoted by the oil lobby for the benefit of the Big Oil privateers.

Think how far we might have come had we elected an intelligent president and a Congress with the word "NO" in their vocabulary. And, to think we have another year to suffer before we have a chance to start unwinding all the damage this administration has brought our country. I don't much care what party or who the next president is; in all cases we are starting out at rock-bottom so everything is up from this point.

I think Google has the right idea and with their financial power let them lead the country as our proxy government, taking the place of the mess we have currently. The future is in alternative energy and no longer in the smog, acid-rain and soot of dirty fossil fuel.

I would like to see the Cicos, Microsofts and Googles become more involved in bringing alternative energy into production; someone needs to challenge the greedy, controlling oil companies as soon as possible so we can move out of this world of fear created by George Bush.

Tom Street

Ultimately, and perhaps sooner than most people realize, Coal is not sustainable from an environmental or even an energy return perspective. The future must be a combination of some combination of solar related technology, geothermal, and nuclear. In the short or even mid term it will be quite a trick to make solar or wind competitive with coal but the investments begun decades ago should have been maintained and accelerated.

The biggest challenge is storage --- how to we come up with a renewable technology that can replace baseload power provided by easily dispatchable fossil fuels.

Elliot

Thank you Google.

Well said Lad.

eric


Regarding the storage problem, geothermal and hydro are available 24/7.

It is also possible to store solar energy with CSP designs. The basic idea is that the sun heats up some intermediate working fluid of some sort, and the fluid is used to generate electricity with conventional designs of turbines. But the heated fluid doesn't have to be used immediately - instead you can put it in an insulated storage vessel, and then use it to make electricity at night.

The Solar II pilot plant built in the California desert back in the 1990's had exactly this type of design.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Two
http://www.sandia.gov/media/solarll.htm

With smaller amounts of storage, it is possible to even out variations caused by passing clouds. The tower that was recently built near Seville Spain apparently has about an hour or so worth of storage (based upon an interview I saw with the plant director that I saw on TV).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PS10_solar_power_tower

shaun

storage is not such a great big deal. millions of PHEVs and BEVs should be able to take care of it, as AC Propulsion has been writing about for nearly a decade now.

compared to the alternative (building a new national 765kV transmission grid, as proposed by AEP), storage is downright cheap and practically done already.

as for google, my gut tells me they are optimistic software types accustomed to solving involved but fundamentally easy problems that be broken into bits and fixed through being organized and a little bit creative. this in no way prepares them to address energy questions, which are constrained by fundamental laws of physics, mature industries set in their ways, and suffocating (but obviously necessary) environmental agencies.

i wish them the best, but expect very little.

Harvey D

Very well said Lad. The energy solutions need people with ideas, imagination and vision. Of course $$$$ would also help.

If the Federal government is going to get involved, time has come to elect people like Google's founders, not warmongers and/or oil, gas, coal and grain/corn ethanol pushers.

USA has enough sunshine and wind to supply all the clean electrical energy required for centuries. A few additional up-to-date large nuclear plants for rainy and windless days and to replace old coal fired power plants would help.

What is required is an urgent and appropriate 10-20 year program to get it done. The current $400 to $500 billion/year war budget could finance part of it. The remainder could be financed by a progressive carbon tax and private enterprises such as Google, Microsoft, Dell, HP, Apple, GE etc.

Hybridcarblog.com

Lad-

I have to take issue with some of your comments, especially the whole big oil lobby argument. Read a book like ZOOM, which demonstrates that the Big Oil Lobby is almost dead. Oil is ever more controlled by NOCs or National Oil Companies - outside the US - that only have one interest in the US - seeing it collapse.

Simply blaming Bush and the big oil lobby is short-sighted and self-defeating.

Aside from Big Oil, a MASSIVE amount of money is being funneled through Congress and the Department of Defense to secure America's foreign oil dependency (Not wars, day-to-day security of shipping channels, etc). However, Americans don't pay for these costs at the pump, but through hidden taxes.

That's the real problem.

Oil is about the military-industrial Iron Triangle that has been funding BOTH parties for decades. Blaming this problem solely on Bush and Republicans is a distraction from reality. This particular Iron Triangle of deceit has been going on for decades and includes administrations from both parties.

Lest we forget, one of the biggest increases in foreign oil dependency happened during the Clinton/Gore years, so this is a bipartisan problem. There is plenty of blame to spread amongst not only both parties, but a significant percent of the driving population.

If America truly wants to solve this problem we have to be more open-minded about the real cause of this problem, and simply voting Democrat will not be enough.

Luis

Lad,

We pretty much all agree with you, but listening to another George Bush rant is beyond old, we read it like 100 times a day, yes we know. I am not apathetic towards Bush, just over hearing the "copy-paste" same rant I have been hearing since 2001. It isn't original

Adam

Interesting, but can't see it becoming cheaper than coal anytime soon. From Wikipedia's solar thermal energy page, it sounds like even at 7% interest rates, Australia's solar thermal project comes in just below 10 cents/kWh. Spain's is considerably higher. That's nowhere near coal, not for a few hundred years at least. Peak coal is a *very* long way off.

As for land:
Solar incident light is about 1100 W/m^2
At 3% efficiency that's 33 W/m^2
Only operates during the day -> 17 W/m^2
That's 17 MW/km^2, or 60 km^2 per GW

That's actually not all that bad. Places like the Arizona desert, Australian outback, and other deserts are good locations for these installations. As the eSolar pamphlet says, 1% of the Sahara could provide the whole world's power needs. Like hydro, it's not exactly where all the people are, but people move to take advantage of opportunity.

However, this technology alone won't get us there. It is naïve to think we'll be able to achieve a three-fold cost reduction any time soon. So we still need massive carbon taxes or renewable mandates to cancel out coal's huge cost advantage and make these technologies cost-competitive.

That said, Good luck Google!

[q->t to email]

Lad


ET AL:
My apologies for running off on a rant and airing my frustrations about the current grouping of politicians when I know the real good work of this site is done when forward ideas are exchanged among readers. I will certainly try to keep politics out of the arguments, must have been the "juice!"

Having said that, I think I will follow the suggestion by Hybridcarbon.com and read more on the role foreign oil interests are playing in their attempts to control our destiny.

Michael McMillan

It is in their own self interest. They are currently paying for power and cooling for at least 100,000 computers, probably close to a million computers where each computer consumes at least 500 watts. Take it as a continuous gigawatt. With consumption dropping at night when the outside air is cooler.

Rafael Seidl

Perhaps Google underestimates the environmental good it is already doing. How much fossil fuel use is avoided by people who now find the information and products they need by searching the Internet? This is specially true during the Holiday shopping season or, when buying big-ticket items like houses and cars.

You could make a similar case for greeting cards that no longer have to be sent as bits of paper, encyclopedias that no longer have to be printed, movies that no longer have to be rented at a store etc. It all adds up. Of course, Google doesn't equal the Internet, but the utility of a network is roughly proportional to the square of the number of individuals in it. Making stuff easy to find has vastly increased the number of people willing to use the Internet for all sorts of things.

This general Internet literacy is a prerequisite for business strategies like virtual teams, videoconferencing and telecommuting. All of these save both time and energy, sharply increasing the wealth created per unit of fossil fuel consumed.

In the same vein, Google should focus on energy conservation strategies for its data centers rather than alternative ways to produce electricity. For example, commodity servers are usually not optimized for energy efficiency and therefore generate high air conditioning loads. The power-saving circuitry used in silicon chips for mobile applications is usually not applied to servers. Disk drives in data centers are always running to ensure rapid response to queries; however, much of the data on them is hardly ever referenced and therefore needlessly kept online. To every kWh of electricity not dissipated by the hardware, you can add almost as much again in electricity not needed to support the associated A/C load.

The biggest heat sources in a data center are the numerous switched AC-DC power supplies. Using a 48VDC grid - as telephone exchanges have done for decades - is more efficient. Not only do DC-DC converters emit far less heat, a DC grid also means you can use large, centralized power converters located in separate rooms. It might even be economical to cool these devices with a liquid circuit featuring a radiator on the roof of the insulated building.

Note that server disk drives are designed to be hot-swapped, which means they could also be liquid-cooled if their enclosures and racks were set up for it. The metal enclosure of the each individual drive would transfer heat to the enclosure via metal-to-metal contact. You could even apply a dab of thermal grease to improve on that. If nothing else, liquid cooling would increase the number of individual spindles that could be installed in a single 19" rack, because there would be no air flow to consider.

While some PC enthusiasts liquid-cool even their CPUs, this is not feasible in server ops. However, the A/C load for the blades themselves could be handled by absorption chillers or Vuilleumier machines running off the exhaust heat of on-site electricity gensets (or district cooling, where available).

Michael

Rafael,
Google is a leader in server/computer energy efficiency; their home-grown rack servers are much more efficient than off-the-shelf varieties. They are also a key player in the Climate Savers Computing Initiative:
http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2007/06/climate-savers-computing-initiative.html

Good points re: reducing energy demand through more efficient organization of information. Very big contribution of Google and the Internet in general.

Elliot

It's a good idea to cut back on energy use, especially from fossil sources. I hope to see a future where we generate more energy than we need cleanly, sell the rest, and do as we please.

Harvey D

Lad:

Please dont change your mind. It is too easy to put the blame on others and rely on import taxes to fix the energy problems.

Yes, the direct cost of clean locally produced energy may currently be 2 or 3 times as much as dirty energy from coal fired plants. However, cost will come down as PV + solar plants get to be more efficient.

Think of the total cost including associated health care, climate change, agriculture, our well being etc.

A 100% carbon tax on fossil fuel energy would help (and may be required) to even up the direct cost issue and curtail fossil fuel consumption and GHG.

GreenPlease

@Rafael

I have also thought the same thing about on-site cogeneration for data centers. I have several liquid cooled computers in my household (CPU, GPU, NB, HD). Cooling those components is very feasible and even economic. Block prices drop to ~$5 apiece in mass production and can be designed to be reused going forward (my blocks support socket 478,479, 939, 940, AM2, etc.) The problem lies in regulating the temperature of MOSFETS. The cost/benefit gets out of wack with components that small.

@Everyone else

I'll join in and wish Google the best. I'd like to add that possibly solar thermal and geothermal could be co-located. Possibly the steam turbines could be shared and the geothermal would only be used to make up for the variability in the solar thermal.

Also, perhaps a solar thermal site could be located near a saline body, such as the north end of the Gulf of California. Cooling systems in solar thermal plants are total loss (except Stirling ES) so it might be possible to use them for desalination without any hit to energy production. The upshot is that the heat exchangers would have to be very stout to resist corrosion, and a significant capital investment would be necessary for the condenser (or possibly acoustics could be used for condensing the water).

Andrey

Rafael:

Typically, one kWh of electricity consumed by air conditioner removes about two kWh worth of heat from the room. If used as heater, AC unit heats the room by three kWh per one kWh electricity used (strongly depends on quality of cold sink). AC is a heat pump, so its thermodynamics is kind of tricky.

Mario

Good theme Rafael.I worked in a telephone exchange in the energy area.For years we have seen the changes from electromagnetic switching equipment to analog electronics and at last digital electronics. While the energy used in the switching network is scarcely greater than before, the energy used in new services (ADSL, etc) ,associated computers, UPS for them and the air conditioning for all of this paraphernalia have created a substancial increment in consumes.
In the past we designed systems with batteries for a minimun autonomy of ten hours, now the weak point is temperature and depending on ambient conditions you may have a thermal runaway in less than one hour if the AC generator fails.
Ericsson has a system with a large reservoir of cold water and DC "fancoils".
About an all 48 VDC grid, if you have ever seen a large telecom building, 20 or more levels, plenty of computers
in everyone you may need a lot of copper.With 240 VAC (5x48)there are considerable savings.
Don´t worry about AC-DC converters (rectifiers), new equipment (after 2000) works in sinusoidal current switching mode and loses are very low, practically the same as DC-DC converters.
Some schemes use for critical loads an AC grid with one of these rectifiers and batteries per rack.

Engineer-Poet

As usual, Andrey is full of crap.  Typical EER of an Energy Star-rated air conditioner is 12 to 12.5, which corresponds to a coefficient of performance of about 3.5.  I've read of some which exceed an EER of 15, which means a CoP in the region of 4.5.

Ben

Google recently look at focus fusion as a potential fundie: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1518007279479871760&q=Google+tech+talks+lerner&pr=goog-sl

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