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Google, which dominates the online search advertising market, plans to branch out into renewable energy and is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on technologies that promise to deliver a return, the company's co-founders said Tuesday.
During a teleconference with reporters, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and other Google executives launched an initiative called RE<C, which stands for renewable energy less than coal. "I know, it's a little bit geeky," Page said of the initiative's name.
Google's goal is to work with other companies, research and development labs, and universities to develop technologies that can harness solar, geothermal, wind, or other renewable energy sources to generate a gigawatt of electricity at a cost that's less than the same amount of power produced by a coal-powered plant, which Page and Brin refer to as "dirty technologies."
Carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere from burning coal for power generation has been identified as a major contributor to global warming. Today, however, there is no renewable energy source capable of matching the relatively low cost of coal-generated electricity. For an alternative to be competitive, it would have to generate power at a cost of 1 cent to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, Page estimates.
Google expects to spend tens of millions of dollars on research and development next year. The company, however, anticipates investing hundreds of millions of dollars in "breakthrough renewable energy projects which generate positive returns." The company plans a full-court press on solar power first, while investigating geothermal systems and other technologies.
Google, which will also use its nonprofit arm, Google.org, to finance some of the initiative, plans to initially hire at least 20 to 30 engineers and energy experts. Whatever promising technology comes out of the effort would be tested by Google, making the company a kind of energy guinea pig.
How Google would make money from the new technologies has yet to be determined. The company could license products, for example, or it could decide to take a percentage of the energy savings from their use. Either way, if Google is successful, then the company and its partners stand to make a lot of money, given the world's need to lower its dependence on fossil fuels. "We don't feel we have to own every piece [of future inventions], we just want the problem solved," Brin said.
Google does not intend to replace its core business of search advertising with energy-related technologies, the co-founders said. The company will continue to invest 70% of its resources on search and 20% on developing Web applications that extend its core business. The energy project fits into the 10% the company sets aside for innovation.
While declining to discuss financial details, Google.org is working with two companies that have promising technologies. ESolar of Pasadena, Calif., specializes in solar thermal power and hopes to develop technology that can be used as a coal replacement in power plants. Makani Power of Alameda, Calif., is developing technology to harness high-altitude wind power.
Asked about their use of private jets as needlessly adding to the problem of wasteful energy consumption, Brin acknowledged that "it's certainly an issue I've wrestled with." Google as a company, however, is on target to be "carbon neutral" by the end of the year. The term means it puts in place activities that reduce carbon-dioxide emissions at an amount equal to the carbon dioxide the company produces.
In addition, Google has installed solar panels that generate 1.6 megawatts of electricity and has joined other tech companies this year in forming the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, a consortium that advocates the design and use of more energy-efficient computers and servers.