What Next For Google.org ?  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , , , ,

Looking at where Google's clean energy investment efforts are going is quite encouraging, based on this week's announcements. So far we've seen initiatives and/or investments in the following areas:

* Energy efficient server farms
* Plug-in hybrid vehicles (ie. V2G)
* Solar
* Wind
* Geothermal

The main gaps still left to fill out would seem to me to be:

* Ocean (wave / tidal) energy
* Next generation biofuels
* Energy storage (especially large scale storage)
* Smart grids (both transmission and demand management)
* Cradle to cradle design and manufacturing (and the associated "internet of things" to track all the stuff, which should be right down their alley)

Cleantech.com has a report on Google's "Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal" initiative - "Google creates renewable R&D group".

Google has an ambitious target to produce a gigawatt of renewable energy that is cheaper than coal within the next few years. "Our own consumption is likely to be a big part of that," said Larry Page, Google's co-founder and president of products, in a conference call. The company does not disclose how much power it uses, but it's estimated to have over 450,000 servers in locations around the world.

Google has put out the call for engineers and energy experts to lead its new RE less than C division, which it said will probably start out with 20 or 30 employees and focus initially on advanced solar thermal power, wind power and enhanced geothermal systems. "The goal is not to have huge margins here, the goal is to really replace the dirty energy that is out there," said Sergey Brin, Google's other co-founder and president of technology.

Already on the inside track are Pasadena, Calif., solar thermal startup eSolar, and Alameda, Calif.'s Makani Power, which is developing high-altitude wind energy technologies. "We're working very closely with both those companies," said Page. He wouldn't disclose how much, if anything, Google has invested in the two startups, but they're likely to get a piece of the Google.org investment windfall.

Google.org was initially funded by one percent of Google's outstanding shares after its initial public offering, and one percent of its profit. That amounts to 3 million shares, valued at $2 billion dollars based on Monday's close, plus $265 million in cash so far to establish the Google Foundation and for grants and investments.

For 2008, Google said it expects to spend tens of millions on research and development at its new RE less than C group and on related investments in that year alone.

Google's green energy czar, Bill Weihl, said they want to accelerate the pace of technology development to drive down the costs. "We think we need to get in the range of 1 to 3 cents per kilowatt hour for solar or other renewables to be really competitive with coal." It's possible there could be Gwindmills or Gsolar panels, or even Ggeothermal power in the future, but more than likely the group's research will be licensed out to others.

"In cases, for example, where it's been created as the result of an investment in a renewable energy company, it would be somewhat up to them, though I think we would encourage them to license it on fairly favorable terms to get it widely out there and perhaps on somewhat lower margins as a consequence," said Brin. He said the group could also send people to build the technology and take a profit on setting up the infrastructure, or take some percentage of the cash pulled in by companies that sell the power.

The company has already developed energy efficiency technology to power and cool its data centers, and it generates electricity for its Mountain View campus from a 1.6 megawatt solar panel installation, one of the largest in the U.S., but that's not always enough. "It's very hard for us to find places to locate that aren't, say, coal-based or other dirty technologies, and we don't feel good about being in that situation as a company, we feel hypocritical," said Page.

He said the company wants to make the investments happen so that there will be alternatives for Google to use down the road. "We see investments that would pay back money on reasonable timescales that we can make now for our own datacenter use and to put onto the grid," said Page.

Google is likely to get flooded with interest from startups eager for some cash, as it did with its much smaller $10 million plug-in hybrid request for proposals in September (see Plug-in hybrids can Google for cash). Larry Brilliant, executive director of Google.org, said, "I think we thought we'd get 20 or 30 responses — we got over 300. And some of them are quite innovative. I think it speaks to the, really the dearth of capital for some of these innovative ideas."

The Independent has an intriguing albeit vapourous article on some elite gathering in London to look at some "breakthrough in micro-technology" related to clean energy - "The rich, famous and influential prepare to hear the secret to climate-safe energy". My hopeful guess - some material that can be used to create ultracapacitors.
A discovery that could give the world access to vast quantities of energy with minimal damage to the climate will be shown off for the first time at a glittering gathering of the famous, rich and influential next Friday night.

Al Gore is to be the star turn at a dinner where guests have paid at least £1,000 a head, and some will have parted with £50,000 for their share of the Aberdeen Angus steak and pink champagne, under the high ornate ceilings of London's Royal Courts of Justice. The combined wealth of the diners has been estimated at £100bn. But the most unusual aspect of the evening is not the price of the tickets but the nature of the floor show. In place of professional performers, the guests will be regaled by people who are not always thought of as entertainers, though some think they are all mad. They are inventive British boffins who care about climate change.

They are hoping that the showcase dinner will knock years off the time it can take for industry to see the mass marketing potential of a new discovery. And the one that will be shown to Mr Gore and fellow guests is highly marketable and could revolutionise the market in clean technology, according to the founder of the British Inventors' Society, Kane Kramer.

Mr Kramer, who was 23 in 1979 when he conceptualised the technology that led to the creation of the first MP3 player, refused to give specific details of the new discovery, or to name the inventor, so as to maintain the element of surprise for Friday. But he indicated that it is a breakthrough in micro-technology, and that British scientists who have tested it are convinced that it will work.

"This is something ... that's the accumulation of almost a decade of work," he said. "It's a new science, a Super Material. It would be 80 per cent cheaper than any alternative means of production, and it will contribute in a major way to reducing climate change. "I like it because it's kind of lateral. It will make possible things that weren't possible before. We have put it through severe 'due diligence', with quite a team of people, not just in the UK, and we're completely 100 per cent sure that this is the way forward."

There is an old saying that if you invent a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door, but he says the adage is true only for inventions that improve gadgets that are already known to work. Big corporations can be very coy about putting money into something genuinely new. "Business wants to jump on a bandwagon, not build the bandwagon," he said. It is also widely suspected that a lot of energy saving ideas have been bought out by the energy companies precisely to keep them off the market.

But the dinner, organised by a foundation called Fortune Forum, will also be used to launch a new campaigning group called the ICE Circle, whose mission is to put inventors of clean energy technologies in touch with investors to market them. The combination of British inventors and mega-rich philanthropists will be a "marriage made in heaven", Mr Kramer reckons

The driving force behind it is Renu Mehta, theEssex-born daughter of a wealthy textiles importer turned peace campaigner, Vijay Mehda. A year ago, she organised the first Fortune Forum dinner, where Bill Clinton spoke, Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, gave his first public performance for more than 20 years, and Michael Douglas and the steel magnate Lashmi Mittal mingled with other guests. The evening raised £1.1m gross, and the net proceeds were distributed to charity.

Last week, she was in Downing Street for talks with Gordon Brown. The dinner should be seen as a campaigning event first, and only second as a fundraiser, Ms Mehda said.

One clean energy area is interested in is wind power - Reuters reports on "Energy-hungry India eying a role as a "wind superpower"".
India might be painted as a pollution-spewing, global-warming economy of 1 billion people but it is also one of the world's biggest wind power users, part of a focus on renewable energy mostly unnoticed in the West. Years of tax incentives have helped make India one of the fastest-growing markets for wind power, a major component of renewable energy that will be high on the agenda of the Dec. 3-14 UN climate change meeting in Bali, Indonesia.

The Bali conference comes as international pressure mounts on India to ensure its growth gets cleaner. The International Energy Agency (IEA) warned this month of the climatic dangers of "unfettered" energy demand growth in India. "When it comes to renewable energy and wind power, India can look the West in the eye and say -- look at our years of progressive policies," said Santosh Kamath, a wind power specialist and associate director at KPMG consultants.

Wind power in India is still a minority sector compared with the Asian giant's overall energy needs that are dependent on coal and oil. With its reliance on dirty fuels, India will become the world's number three carbon emitter by 2015, the IEA says.

But renewable energy, of which the vast majority is wind power, accounts for more than 7 percent of India's installed generation capacity -- a rate that compares favourably with much of the rest of the world. India is the world's fourth largest wind-power market.

"Wind power is growing tremendously. If you want a wind plant you'll have to book a year in advance," said Chandra Bhushan, associate director at the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. "There's been years of progressive policies and recognition for a long time that India will face a shortage of fossil fuels."

India, with its thousands of miles of coastline, is suited to wind power. Its wind power potential is estimated at 45,000 megawatts (MW) -- about a third of total energy consumption. ... KPMG estimates that wind power costs around 3.5 rupees a kilowatt hour, compared with 2.5-3 rupees for imported coal. "Wind energy is almost price competitive in many places," T.L. Sankar, senior energy adviser at the Administrative Staff College of India, told a renewable energy conference.

And global warming might only add to its attraction. "It can only gain in importance because of concerns about climate change," added Kamath.

AP has a report on algae based biofuels - "There's Oil in That Slime".
Driven by renewed investment as oil prices push $100 a barrel, Ruan and scores of scientists around the world are racing to turn algae into a commercially viable energy source. Some varieties of algae are as much as 50 percent oil, and that oil can be converted into biodiesel or jet fuel. The biggest challenge is slashing the cost of production, which by one Defense Department estimate is running more than $20 a gallon.

"If you can get algae oils down below $2 a gallon, then you'll be where you need to be. And there's a lot of people who think you can," said Jennifer Holmgren, director of the renewable fuels unit of UOP LLC, an energy subsidiary of Honeywell International Inc.

Researchers are trying to figure out how to grow enough of the right strains of algae and how to extract the oil most efficiently. Over the past two years they've enjoyed an upsurge in funding from governments, the Pentagon, big oil companies, utilities and venture capital firms. The federal government halted its main algae research program nearly a decade ago, but technology has advanced and oil prices have climbed since then, and an Energy Department lab announced in late October that it was partnering with Chevron Corp., the second-largest U.S. oil company, in the hunt for better strains of algae.

"It's not backyard inventors at this point at all," said George Douglas, a spokesman for the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "It's folks with experience to move it forward."

A New Zealand company demonstrated a Range Rover powered by an algae biodiesel blend last year, but experts say it will be many years before algae is commercially viable. Ruan expects some demonstration plants to be built within a few years.

Converting algae oil into biodiesel uses the same process that turns vegetable oils into biodiesel. But the cost of producing algae oil is hard to pin down because nobody's running the process start to finish other than in a laboratory, Douglas said. One Pentagon estimate puts it at more than $20 per gallon, but other experts say it's not clear cut. If it can be brought down, algae's advantages include growing much faster and in less space than conventional energy crops. An acre of corn can produce about 20 gallons of oil per year, Ruan said, compared with a possible 15,000 gallons of oil per acre of algae.

An algae farm could be located almost anywhere. It wouldn't require converting cropland from food production to energy production. It could use sea water. And algae can gobble up pollutants from sewage and power plants.

The Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is funding research into producing jet fuel from plants, including algae. DARPA is already working with Honeywell's UOP, General Electric Inc. and the University of North Dakota. In November, it requested additional research proposals. As the single largest energy consumer in the world, the Defense Department needs new, affordable sources of jet fuel, said Douglas Kirkpatrick, DARPA's biofuels program manager. "Our definition of affordable is less than $5 per gallon, and what we're really looking for is less than $3 per gallon, and we believe that can be done," he said.

Des Plaines, Ill.-based UOP — which has developed a "green diesel" process that converts vegetable oils into fuels that are more like conventional petroleum products than standard biodiesel — already has successfully converted soybean oil into jet fuel, Holmgren said. And the company has partnered with Arizona State University to obtain algae oil to test for the DARPA project, she said.

At the University of Minnesota, Ruan and his colleagues are developing ways to grow mass quantities of algae, identifying promising strains and figuring out what they can make from the residue that remains after the oil is removed.

Because sunlight doesn't penetrate more than a few inches into water that's thick with algae, it doesn't grow well in deep tanks or open ponds. So researchers are designing systems called "photobioreactors" to provide the right mix of light and nutrients while keeping out wild algae strains.

Ruan's researchers grow their algae in sewage plant discharge because it contains phosphates and nitrates — chemicals that pollute rivers but can be fertilizer for algae farms. So Ruan envisions building algae farms next to treatment plants, where they could consume yet another pollutant, the carbon dioxide produced when sewage sludge is burned.

Jim Sears of A2BE Carbon Capture LLC, of Boulder, Colo., a startup company that's developing fuel-from-algae technologies that tap carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants, compared the challenges to achieving space flight. "It's complex, it's difficult and it's going to take a lot of players," Sears said.



Links:

* Wall Street Journal - Ethanol craze cools as doubts multiply
* Technology Review - Harnessing Kinetic Energy
* The Energy Blog - Sharp to Up Thin-film Solar Cell Capacity
* The Energy Blog - Supergrid to Supply Europe with Wind Power
* TreeHugger - Hewlett-Packard Installing Solar Systems At Operating Sites
* New York Times - Google’s Next Frontier: Renewable Energy
* Cleantech.com - Forget the Gphone, here comes Gsolar
* Christian Science Monitor - Plugging the Internet into clean power
* WorldChanging - Green Computing Is Not An Oxymoron
* Cleantech.com - OPEC putting up $750M for cleantech fund
* After Gutenberg - Australia: Don’t Write Us Off Quite Yet
* REA - What To Do With All This Waste?
* The Energy Blog - Exxon: Film May Lead to Car Battery that is Lighter and Safer
* Cryptogon - Exxon's New Battery For Electric Vehicle Applications
* Cryptogon - Explosion on Strategic Canadian Pipelines that Supply 1.5 Million Barrels of Oil Per Day to U.S.
* Cryptogon - Domestic Spying, Inc.

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