The company that revolutionized the delivery of information now aims to do the same with electricity.
Technology powerhouse Google today announced it would spend "tens of millions" of dollars next year in research and development and investments in an effort to drive down the cost of large-scale renewable energy to make it cheaper than coal.
Not only will Google be hiring engineers and energy experts for its new initiative, known as RE<C (renewable energy at less cost than coal), but it also will make investments in fledgling companies—starting with those that focus on solar-thermal technology, enhanced geothermal, and high-altitude wind power.
"Cheap renewable energy is not only critical for the environment but also vital for economic development in many places where there is limited affordable energy of any kind," said Sergey Brin, Google cofounder and president of technology, in a prepared statement.
Coal supplies 40 percent of the world's electricity and more than half of U.S. power, and if current trends continue, it is expected to grab an ever increasing share because it is a plentiful and cheap fuel for big consumers like China and the United States. But coal is also the worst fuel in its production of the global warming gas carbon dioxide.
Google cofounder Larry Page said the company's goal is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper than coal within "years, not decades." Google says that's enough electricity to power a city the size of San Francisco (about 330,000 households).
Google, located in Mountain View, Calif., said it was initially working with two other California companies. They are eSolar, of Pasadena, which is specializing in solar-thermal power, using large fields of mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate steam to run utility-scale electric turbines, and Makani of Alameda, which is developing wind energy technology that takes advantage of the much stronger and more reliable currents available at high altitudes.
Google did not specify how much money it was putting into its projects with these companies but said they both had "promising scalable energy technologies." This portion of the initiative will be funded through the company's philanthropic arm, Google.org, which is not a traditional charity but can make equity investments in companies. Brin and Page have pledged 1 percent of Google's equity and profits toward efforts including climate change and global poverty.
The RE<C program is the latest of a series of steps Google has taken on climate change. The company says it is on track in its goal to be carbon neutral in 2007. It installed one of the largest corporate solar panel installations anywhere, a 1.6-megawatt rooftop system on its Mountain View campus.
The company also has a project to accelerate development and adoption of ultrahigh-efficiency plug-in hybrid cars. Google has been lobbying for inclusion of a nationwide renewable energy portfolio goal in the energy legislation currently under negotiation on Capitol Hill. And the company is working on an energy-efficient computing initiative with other Silicon Valley companies.