When Google's founders decided to channel some of their company's fantastic wealth into solving world problems, they chose a man to lead the effort whose life story is a marriage of charity and technology. Larry Brilliant, 63, has amply lived up to his portentous surname as a leader of the World Health Organization's smallpox eradication effort in the 1970s and later as a cofounder of a pioneering online community, the Well. Now, as executive director of Google.org, he'll direct a fund bankrolled by 3 million shares of Google stock, an amount worth close to $2 billion last week, plus 1 percent of Google's annual profits, toward projects on climate change, poverty, and global public health. Before Google's announcement last week of a major research and development initiative to develop utility-scale renewable electricity that will be cheaper than coal power, Brilliant spoke with U.S. News about how Google.org is approaching the drive for clean energy—and why the philanthropy has shunned tax-free nonprofit status and will make investments as well as give money away. Excerpts:
How does the energy challenge compare with others you've faced?
I've had the blessing—and not everyone likes to use that word, but for me, it's been a blessing—to work in the United Nations' successful campaign to eradicate smallpox. I've had 5,000 little babies die in front of me or in my arms or mothers handing me babies that were already dead. Smallpox killed 500 million people in the 20th century. To see that disease eradicated means to me there is no challenge we cannot accomplish when we see the rest of the world and all of our partners as part of the same army working toward that goal.
This is the first time in human history that you have to be blind, deaf, or dumb to not realize that we're all in it together. In order for us to solve this problem, we will be a different and a better world.
Talk about high-efficiency plug-in hybrid cars.
We've been talking to all the major automobile companies, trying to show them there is demand. If you think, "That's weird for Google. Why is Google trying to be the marketing department for an automobile company?" Our goal is to try to do whatever is the best thing to move us all toward an energy-efficient lifestyle.
Why has Google.org chosen a structure so different from that of traditional nonprofits?
The way the world works, unless you're able to have a company that makes a profit, you're not going to be able to continue in a sustainable way these great ideas that we have. In this area, automotive and electrical and technology, you see the huge amount of venture capital going into companies. It is going to be a breakthrough new technology that gets us there, supported by creative project financing, a good legislative and policy environment, and a way of producing products people want, and are willing to pay for, in a sustainable way. Otherwise, we're always going to go back to those companies that are making things that aren't as good for the environment but are profitable. The problem is too important to be left to the nonprofit sector alone. Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin], the founders of Google, were prescient and created Google.org in a way that we could make equity investments. And I fully expect to be making many—and some large—equity investments in this space.
What sort of investments?
We really believe that one of the keys to solving the climate problem is to make electricity from renewable energy cheaper than electricity from coal. It sounds so simplistic and evidently true. But it contains in it a number of subsidiary concepts and initiatives and action items. One is grants for research; another is creative financing mechanisms so the cost of capital is reduced. And then we need to make equity investments in those companies—those start-ups and fledgling companies—that have the best possibility of coming to market with the lowest-per-unit-cost renewable industry. Those are three things we want to do for large-scale renewables. But on the other side—and here's where it will get hard and controversial and difficult—somehow the full cost of coal and of carbon dioxide has to be understood by everybody in the world.
Do you think renewables can ever become a substantial part of the U.S. energy mix?
Think if somebody had said to us eight years ago, "Could Google be the size that it is?" or if when the Internet was first beginning, and [technology pioneer] Vint Cerf created this thing called TCP/IP and somebody had said to him, "It will change the world." Oh, I absolutely believe we can do it. I have so much faith in American entrepreneurship, in our creative spirit. We do really well with our backs against the wall.