2011-11-29

Google's Renewable Energy Initiative Is Dead

While the company says it will still pour dollars into other renewable projects, it’s done doing its own R&D. Here’s what the RE<C initiative managed to accomplish before it was unceremoniously shuttered.

In 2007, Google announced it was taking on a project that could be considered ambitious even by the search engine giant’s standards: the Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal (RE<C) initiative, which was designed to bring down the cost of renewable energy through strategic investments and research. Last week, Google announced that the initiative is shutting down because "other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level." Here’s what Google has to show for its four years of energy research:

A Geothermal Map Of The U.S.

This three-year project yielded the first geothermal map of the U.S., which projects that the country has the potential to generate 2,980,295 megawatts of geothermal energy, or 10 times the installed capacity of coal, using advanced technology like Enhanced Geothermal Systems. The map could prove invaluable to geothermal companies deciding where to drill next.

The Brayton Engine

Google engineers discovered that by using a Brayton Engine—a jet engine that heats air with solar power and doesn’t need to be cooled with sprayed water—they could reduce both water use and potential operating costs for concentrated solar power plants. The research is available for all to see, but Google says that "Photovoltaic (PV) power generation is coming down in cost faster than expected. Our Brayton cycle solar power solution has essentially no energy storage component, placing it in direct competition with PV." Google never completed a prototype of the engine, and much more research on the solar receiver design and temperature gradients needs to be done before that happens.

The Heliostat Project

Google worked on all sorts of research for heliostats (the mirrors used in concentrated solar plants), including cost-saving reflector designs, ground attachments, frames, and methods to lower shipping costs. Ultimately, Google found that its heliostat field "would be modestly less expensive than previous approaches," according to one report.

The goal was to use the research in the $2.2 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, but that never happened. The project is still under construction, and Google’s research is available here for anyone who wants to run with it. Google Clean Energy spokesman Parag Chokshi tells Co.Exist that "it’s a little early" to see what companies might be interested in Google’s work, but that the research is "open-sourced in some sense."

Everything Else

And what of the engineers that worked on RE<C? None will be fired. In traditional Google fashion, they’ll simply move on to other projects, though Chokshi declines to provide specifics. The engineers who worked on the heliostat project, at least, have skills that can easily be used in other parts of the company. One engineer has put in time designing Google’s servers; another helped develop Google Book Search scanning technology. Some will surely be put to work on Google’s data center work, which will continue.

Even though Google’s RE<C research is ending, the company still plans to invest in outside projects. In the past, Google has put up $820 million for projects like the world’s biggest wind farm and a financing deal for residential rooftop solar.

Google will also continue work on internal energy efficiency. "We’re still thinking about ways to green our power supply," says Chokshi. But for potentially world-changing engineering ideas from the company, look elsewhere—like its self-driving cars.

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