Power Revolution

Thanks to Silicon Valley's money and ideas, solar and other alternative technologies finally pay off

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New efficiency

Congress is dithering over a proposal to force American cars to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a seemingly modest goal with smaller cars and more-efficient diesel engines helping the European Union near 44.2 MPGand Japan attain more than 45 MPG. But a race is on for the technology that could blow all those numbers away. "You see the difficulty Congress has in setting a new...standard, and we know the best way to help is to have some cars that get 100 miles per gallon and to make them gorgeous and affordable," says Larry Brilliant, executive director of Google's philanthropic arm, Google.org. That would mean more than 70 percent oil savings, since the current fuel-efficiency standard is just 27.5 MPG goal set in 1975 and reached by the late 1980s.

Google is putting its considerable muscle behind the drive for the "plug-in hybrid," technology to take the hybrid gas-electric engine system already found in the Toyota Prius to a new level. Add a larger battery that can store electricity longer and can be charged with an ordinary household outlet, and the car could run on home electricity instead of gasoline most of the time. The plug-in advocacy group CalCars estimates that with today's electricity prices, drivers would be paying the equivalent of 75 cents per gallon. As a first step, Google is putting together a small fleet of retrofitted hybrids to gather data that demonstrate the technology's capabilities. (Anyone can log in to rechargeit.org to see that it is averaging 68.4 MPG.) But Google wants to see the big automaker mass-produce plug-ins. Last week, Google closed bidding on its request for plug-in or hybrid technology proposals it plans to fund to the tune of $10 million. The goal is to make renewable energy more attractive to utilities through the use of green vehicles. One problem those companies have with wind and solar is that they are intermittent. Some days, the skies are cloudy and the air still. "But if you had a large number of plug-ins with significant battery capacity plugged into the grid, we'd have a very compelling storage opportunity," says Google.org's Reicher. "If we can crack the code on plug-in vehicles, I think it will be transformative." Now that's thinking big.