Google’s energy master plan

The New York Times’ Green Inc blog has an interview with Bill Weihl, Google’s “green energy czar”, which is his real title, as far as we can tell. Yes, it’s been a while since we covered the tech sector.

Anyway, the interview is interesting because it can be complicated to unpick exactly what is behind Google’s forays into energy and renewables, much of it is done via Google.org, which is not a non-profit, while other parts of Google are also involved in some of the company’s energy ventures.

In fact last month Google applied, through a subsidiary called Google Energy, for the right to sell power from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This is apparently to buy renewable energy, but we reckon Google could make a tidy sum from becoming its own demand aggregator, if switching off its servers during high demand periods were an option.

Weihl is quite upfront about the fact that part of Google’s interest in energy comes from the fact that it’s a big energy user – and actually this is the first reason he gives.

So, is it meant to make money or not?

There’s not a simple answer to that question. Some of these initiatives come out of Google.org [the company’s philanthropy branch], and their primary goal is to have a positive impact on the world.

The reason Google.org is not just a foundation is that lots of people believe that if you want to have a big impact at scale on the world, then you need to go beyond what a 501(c)3 can do, which is to make charitable grants, so you need the ability to invest in companies, to do engineering projects, to do things that might at some point actually make money.

We’d be delighted if some of this stuff actually made money, obviously; it is not our goal to not make money. All else being equal, we’d like to make as much money as we can, but the principal goal is to have a big impact for good.

It’s hard not to hope that Google will be as brilliant at picking future energy technologies as it has been at becoming a massive search marketing money-generating machine — but as Weihl points out, the money invested in energy projects is deliberately meant to be far-fetched:

In fact, if you don’t say five years later, “We never should have done that” about a significant percentage of it, then you’re being way too conservative. So the stuff we’re doing under the Google.org umbrella on alternative energy, some of it doesn’t connect very closely to Google’s core business, some of it does, and that’s O.K.

Google’s favourite technologies in its search for a ‘cheaper than coal’ source of power are concentrated solar thermal, enhanced geothermal and high-altititude wind (yes, Google.org has invested in one of those high altitude wind companies.  On the enhanced geothermal front, its big investment is Altarock, which Green Inc helpfully points out has been drubbed in New York Times for problems with a Californian demonstration project – but unfortunately the interviewer doesn’t seem to have asked Weihl about this specifically.

Related links:

Google can’t spend its clean tech money fast enough (FT ES, 10/09/09)
Google leans towards one-way electric vehicle charging software (FT ES, 19/06/09)

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