14 October 2010

What Is Google Doing In Cleantech?

Google Inc. has invested a lot in cleantech and green ventures. Is there any pattern? Here is a summary of Google's investments and projects to date, and thoughts about where it is going.

The Arms of Google

Google has several "arms" where cleantech activities reside.

What Google Has Been Up To

Project or Investment Date Arm Comments
Makani Power
$10 million series A funding for company developing Airborne Wind Turbines
on-site solar
Google Initiatives
1.6 megawatt solar power system on Mountain View campus buildings from EI Solutions (now Suntech Power)
"effort within Google.org that aims to reduce CO2 emissions, cut oil use, and stabilize the electrical grid by accelerating the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles"; includes a demonstration fleet of plug-ins at corporate headquarters in Mountain View.
plug-in hybrids
worked with Hymotion/A123Systems to create fleet of plug-in hybrids for research
Innovate or Die Pedal-Powered Machine Challenge 2007-09-24
collaborated with Specialized and Goodby Silverstein & Partners on YouTube video contest on harnessing pedal power in innovative ways, with prizes of $5,000 in cash and Specialized Globe bikes
"joint Google.org+Google.com climate team created RE<C"; "RE<C will work to develop one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity – enough to power a city the size of San Francisco – at a price cheaper than coal in years, not decades. As part of this effort, Google.org is making strategic investments and grants, advancing key public policies, and using Google products to unlock critical information." Includes EGS project and investments. [Update 2011 11 23: program terminated. See last item this official Google blog post.]
Clean Energy 2030

Google's Proposal for reducing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. Text here.
$10 million invested in utility-scale concentrating solar power; also participated in later round
BrightSource Energy
$10 million equity investment as part of RE<C initiative
lithium ion battery start-up; investment through RechargeIT program; $2.75 million between ActaCell and Aptera.
Aptera Motors
electric vehicle start-up; investment through RechargeIT program; $2.75 million between ActaCell and Aptera.
Enhanced Geothermal Systems
an effort to advance EGS through R&D, investment, policy and information. Investments in Potter Drilling, AltaRock Energy, Inc., Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab and Stanford University
Potter Drilling
$4 million investment to develop breakthrough hard rock drilling technologies for EGS
AltaRoc Energy, Inc.
$6.25 million investment to develop EGS technologies and projects
Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab
$489,521 grant to improve geothermal resource assessment techniques and update the Geothermal Map of North America; recent update here
Stanford University

$135,000 award to research advanced well concepts (part of EGS)
Silver Spring Networks
Google Ventures
Smart grid technology company
V-Vehicle Company
Google Ventures
Energy-efficient vehicle company
Google PowerMeter
free home energy monitor software; collaborating with energy monitor hardware partners and utilities
Google Earth Engine
computational platform for global-scale analysis of satellite imagery to monitor changes in key environmental indicators like forest coverage
mirror technology

developed prototype new mirror technology for concentrating solar power applications
NextEra Energy Resources investment
Google Initiatives
$38.8 million direct investment in a two NextEra Energy Resources wind farms that generate 169.5 megawatts of power in North Dakota
NextEra Energy Resources PPA
Google Initiatives
bulk power purchase of clean energy from 114 megawatts of wind generation at the NextEra Energy Resources Story County II facility in Iowa; 20-year PPA and also buying RECs in bulk
Google Initiatives
as part of its Project 10^100 Google awarded $1 million to this human-powered transit project
self-driving cars
Google Initiatives
Google hired leading developers and has built and tested cars that can drive themselves, logging 140,000 miles so far
Atlantic Wind Connection
Google Initiatives (?)
Google to provide 37.5% of the equity for initial development stage of project to build offshore high-capacity transmission line off Eastern Seaboard

The company also has a lot of internal energy-efficiency and emission-offset activities, and other green stuff like bike-sharing and goats as lawnmowers.

Where are they going?

At a recent event Bill Weihl, head of Google's renewable energy team, admitted that the RE<C initiative hasn't found as many attractive investment opportunities lately. "It's a little bit bleak," Reuters quotes him as saying. "There aren't that many people working on home runs" to cheap energy, he continued, adding, "We have not seen things that we felt were big enough potential breakthrough and low enough risk."

Greentech Media asked "Has Google’s Green Strategy Begun to Make Sense?" It concludes that the investments have been "a mixed bag" and in some cases "downright wacky", but notes that now it "wants to apply its core competence -- artificial intelligence -- in the realm of efficiency". "Overall, the navigation system fits in much better with Google's strengths than VC investing or solar thermal. Presumably, you can expect more of this sort of thing."

I find it interesting that Google was the sponsor of the "Transportation" category in the California region of the Cleantech Open competition this year. Back in 2007 they sponsored the "Green Building" category. 

There is an apparent shift from pure venture investing and spaghetti-to-wall projects toward three areas of emphasis:
  • Energy efficiency in computing, which is crucial to Google's bottom line,
  • Acquiring supplies of clean energy, which will also reduce the carbon footprint of its data centers, and
  • Application of its core decision-making tools and web resources to clean technology, as in its Google Earth projects, PowerMeter and self-driving vehicles.
Certainly all of Google's public sustainability activities also function to buff the "green" image of the company. The primary benefit of this may be to help attract and retain the best talent. Google has always emphasized the psychic benefits of working there, and green issues are easy to communicate and have a strong "feel good" component.

A company this creative, and with this much money, will keep trying new things.

[Update 2011 11 23: RE<C project closed]

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