Google’s commitment to renewables

Hilary McNaughton – 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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Google’s commitment to renewables”

  1. 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.

    True enough, though there isn’t much reason to think Google will do as well at this as it has at web search technology. The latter can literally be developed by two guys in a garage. The energy industry seems to be a much more complex and unmovable thing.

  2. Gandhi’s TalismanHow Google decided what to give to
    By Larry Brilliant
    Updated Monday, Feb. 11, 2008, at 7:33 AM ET

    Benares is the holy Indian city where many sick pilgrims go to die, to be cremated in the burning ghats on the Ganges River. There is a story of a saint who went to Benares and encountered terrible suffering among these pilgrims. As he walked down the steps to the burning ghats, he saw beggars, lepers, men with one leg or no legs, and women with starving infants. The saint had a pocketful of rupees. What should he do—what should any moral person do—with his few coins? Give two coins to a leper? One to a man who’d lost one leg, two to a man who’d lost both? Is there a hierarchy of suffering?

  3. Google closing in on cheap renewable energy
    Tue Jun 9, 2009 6:46pm EDT

    By Peter Henderson

    MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif (Reuters) – Google Inc is closing in on its goal of producing renewable energy at a price cheaper than coal, the company’s so-called green energy czar, the engineer in charge of the project, said on Tuesday.

    But the United States needs to raise government-backed research significantly and take much bigger risks if it wants to make alternative energy mainstream, executive Bill Weihl told Reuters in an interview.

    Google, known for its Internet search engine, in late 2007 said it would invest in companies and do research of its own to produce affordable renewable energy — at a price less than burning coal — within a few years.

    The often-quirky company cast the move as a philanthropic effort to address climate change, but the work is done by a unit of the for-profit corporation,, and Google investors will profit from any breakthroughs.

    The story of its pursuit of cheap, clean energy became an overnight phenomenon, and Chief Executive Eric Schmidt conferred with U.S. President Barack Obama on economic revival and green jobs.

    Weihl said the odds of success had gone up in the last year or so from a long shot to a real possibility of demonstrating working technology in a few years’ time.

  4. Google announced today on its official blog the impending closure of a number of its less successful services. In addition to retiring minor features like Bookmarks List and Friend Connect, Google has outlined a plan to close down Wave. The experimental communication medium will go read-only on January 31, and on April 30 they will shut it down completely. Also on April 30, Google will be changing Knol so that individual knols are not viewable, though users will still be able to download and export them until October 1, at which point they’ll disappear entirely. Google Gears is also getting the axe, as is Search Timeline and the Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal initiative.

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