Google.org – the philanthropic arm of the internet search giant – is seeking to use the cognitive and financial resources of its parent to improve the world. Google has promised to eventually fund the organization using 1% of its equity, profit, and employee time. The real question is whether they will prove able to leverage their particular advantages and achieve outcomes of real significance. There is much reason to hope that they will.
From an environmental perspective, the awkwardly named “RE<C” initiative is the most exciting. The goal is to “develop electricity from renewable energy sources that is cheaper than electricity produced from coal… producing one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity – enough to power a city the size of San Francisco – in years, not decades.” This is certainly an ambitious undertaking. One reason for that is because the true price of coal is not being paid: all the environmental pollution associated with coal mining and burning is being left off the balance sheet, at least in America. If Google can produce renewable technologies that outperform coal economically even in the absence of carbon pricing, it will start to look feasible to begin dismantling the global fossil fuel economy.
It is probably fair to say that meeting this goal would be a more significant contribution to human welfare than everything Google has done so far. Here’s hoping all those brains and dollars come together brilliantly. Of course, as much as we might hope for such a technological rescue, it’s not something to bet on. Even in the absence of breakthrough technologies in renewables, the path to a low-carbon future is pretty well marked out: carbon pricing, regulation in demand inelastic sectors, energy conservation, and massive deployment of existing low-carbon technology.