Google Quits Renewable Energy Research  

Posted by Big Gav in

The Google blog reports that Google's RE < C program (along with various other projects like Google Wave) is no more - More spring cleaning out of season.

Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal —This initiative was developed as an effort to drive down the cost of renewable energy, with an RE < C engineering team focused on researching improvements to solar power technology. At this point, other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level. So we’ve published our results to help others in the field continue to advance the state of power tower technology, and we’ve closed our efforts. We will continue our work to generate cleaner, more efficient energy—including our on-campus efforts, procuring renewable energy for our data centers, making our data centers even more efficient and investing more than $850 million in renewable energy technologies.

CleanTechnica puts the announcement into context - Google Favoring Clean Energy Deployment over Clean Energy R&D.
Announced in 2007 by Google, RE < C was focused on driving down the cost of renewable electricity (mostly solar and geothermal) to meet the cost of generating electricity from coal. The initiative funded R&D in capital-intensive, early-stage technologies that would enable cheaper Enhanced Geothermal Systems and Concentrating Solar Power projects.

But Google says it’s now shifting its focus to project financing rather than R&D, citing the need for more sophisticated research on CSP technologies beyond Google’s scope, and the rapidly changing economics of solar PV:
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of progress in clean energy. We’re excited that some technologies are so quickly approaching cost competitiveness with traditional forms of energy in parts of the US and the world. Power tower technology has come a long way, too. But the installed cost of solar photovoltaic technology has declined dramatically over the past few years, making solar photovoltaic technology a compelling choice for consumers.

At this point, other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level. So we’ve published our results to help others in the field continue to advance the state of power tower technology, and we’ve closed our efforts. We will continue our work to generate cleaner, more efficient energy—including our on-campus efforts, procuring renewable energy for our data centers, making our data centers even more efficient and investing more than $850 million in renewable energy technologies.

Although the news was hidden at the bottom of a blog post, this is a pretty important announcement. (Only at Google would they casually “spring clean” millions of dollars in R&D investments for renewable energy).

Firstly, it shows how capital intensive many of these technologies are. Google invested tens of millions of dollars into R&D for new methods of building CSP plants. Today, we’ve got a number of commercial projects deployed using some of the technologies and methods funded by Google — but even after investing all that money, much of the research is still in the early phases, the company says.

The same goes for Google’s funding of Potter Drilling, a company working on developing a technique for drilling through deep, hard rock called “thermal spallation.” The drill is designed for Enhanced Geothermal projects. Potter has been working on the technique since 2004, with Google investing over $10 million in the company through its RE < C initiative in 2008. But like most development in the EGS sector, progress has been slow and the drill has not been commercialized yet.

Google’s shift away from these projects doesn’t prove whether or not they’ll be successful. It just shows how much money and time goes into bringing new energy technologies to scale.

Meanwhile, the stunning changes in the economics of solar PV have made market conditions far different today than in 2007. Google has since invested more than $350 million into the deployment of distributed solar, investing in SolarCity and Clean Power Finance, and a variety of projects in Germany. (Google also threw $168 million behind the Ivahpah CSP project, showing that it still has a lot of confidence in that technology too).

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