Q&A With Google’s Green Energy Czar  

Posted by Big Gav

The New York Times' Green Inc blog has an interview with Google's green energy guy Bill Weihl, talking about their investments in clean energy and their focus on solar thermal power, enhanced geothermal power and high altitude wind power - Q&A: Google’s Green Energy Czar.

Q. Google’s stated aim with regard to energy is to make renewable energy cheaper than coal. How did you arrive at this particular goal?

A. We’ve learned that a small team of smart people with basic technical expertise and the freedom to really innovate can do something quite remarkable, and we wanted to see if that really could be true for alternative energies. One of the keys there is the freedom to go after a really aggressive goal, and so we set a goal of making renewable energy cheaper than coal – it’s a very simple, kind of audacious and crazy goal.

Coal is the energy source of about half the electricity we consume in the U.S. and is responsible for about 82 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector, so until you’ve done something about the emissions coming from coal, you’ve made only a tiny dent.

Putting a price on carbon can help level the playing field, but to actually deploy renewables to the extent that we stop burning coal, I believe that’s only going to happen if they can compete economically without any substantial price on carbon or substantial subsidies, because I don’t think that people will tolerate that. I hope they will; I would be willing to pay that extra cost, but I can afford it. There are lots of people in the developing world who probably would say, I’m not going to pay that.

So that’s why we took as our direct goal that we’re aiming for, let’s make renewables cheaper than coal, and let’s make that happen as quickly as we can.
Q. Which technologies do you think are most likely to beat coal?

A. There are three areas we’re looking at: concentrated solar thermal, enhanced geothermal and high-altitude wind.

On the concentrated solar side, we’ve invested in two companies: eSolar and BrightSource, both of which are working on power tower platforms where a field of swiveling mirrors reflects sunlight toward a central tower with a receiver.

We’re doing some internal R&D work on the mirrors — things that eSolar and BrightSource aren’t looking at and really shouldn’t be looking at: they don’t need to take the risks to explore these kinds of designs and materials.

We’re also looking at the receiver and turbine technology, looking at some ideas about going to higher temperatures which just from a thermodynamic point of view can give you higher efficiency. But again, I think these are things that both eSolar and BrightSolar are interested in, and if we’re successful with the R&D we’re doing, they would be natural places to pick it up and start to deploy it.

Enhanced geothermal is based on the idea that pretty much anywhere on earth, if you drill deep enough, it’s hot. If it’s hot enough and you have the right kind of rock, then you inject water and cycle that water through the system, and it produces energy from steam just like a normal hydrothermal reservoir.

One really nice thing about enhanced geothermal is that it’s base load power: the fuel’s always there, whereas for solar and wind, sometimes the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow and you can’t produce any energy. So we think enhanced geothermal is very promising, and we’ve invested in AltaRock Energy and Potter Drilling. It has a ways to go before it gets to be really cost-competitive with coal, and it might never quite get there, but it’s got a big upside.

The other one that we’re looking at is high-altitude wind — ways to capture the stronger and steadier winds that are at 500 or 1,000 or 2,000 meters high, or potentially even up in the jet stream. Internally, we’ve been looking at taking traditional wind turbines and putting them on much taller towers so you can get to much stronger steadier winds. Today, with the way people build towers, it would cost a lot more to go up to 200 meters compared to the usual 80 meters. We’ve been looking at some ideas that would let you go up and build a turbine at 200 meters at very little extra cost. If that pans out, it would be a way to knock 20 or 30 percent off the cost of wind, and wind is pretty close to the cost of coal today.

We’ve also invested in a company called Makani Power that is doing high-altitude wind using an airborne platform. They’ve been looking at using a kite or a wing under autonomous control, where the wind pulls the kite out and you change the angle of attack so you can wheel it back in at less cost than the energy would make going out. The other approach is to use some kind of wing with propellers on it and the generators on the wing. So you’re flying a kite through the wind and it’s making the propeller spin so it’s acting like a wind turbine, and then you have to get the power down the cable back to the ground. There are other companies in that space with some similar ideas.

VentureBeat reports that Google has also created a new energy trading subsidiary - Google applies to buy and sell energy — is a Googley utility imminent?.

Mere days after Google launched its own phone, the Nexus One, it has come out with another big announcement: the creation of Google Energy, a subsidiary that it will use to buy and sell electricity on federally-regulated wholesale energy markets. Could it have plans to launch its own utility? Could you one day be buying your electricity from American’s favorite search engine instead of PG&E?

So far that seems unlikely. Yes, Google is applying to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the ability to buy and sell electricity, but it doesn’t plan to market it to the general public. Rather, the company seems to want to lower its own energy costs by buying it on the wholesale market; and it has been very vocal about greening its power mix by buying electricity generated by renewable sources (it already derives power from rooftop solar panels at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, but this is only a small sliver of what it uses every day).

Considering the volume of greenhouse gas emissions produced by Google and its many energy-intensive data centers, the company is going to have a hard time achieving its goal of carbon neutrality. But buying more affordable, cleaner energy could give it the leg up it needs to actually become the first IT company to pull it off.


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