Google Goes Green, Supports Alternative Energy

This week, Web giant Google announced a new project that aims to support the development of various alternative energy technologies to eventually make them cheaper than coal. Bill Weihl, Google's "alternative energy czar," explains the company's plan to give a boost to green energy solutions.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next: Google goes green. This week, the Internet giant announced plans to go into the alternative energy business, investing in wind and solar as the company tries to wean itself and us from coal.

Joining me now to talk more about it is Bill Weihl. He is the green energy czar for Google. He joins us by phone from San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BILL WEIHL (Green Energy Czar, Google): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Tell us why Google was so interested in going green?

Mr. WEIHL: Well - so the reason is that we use a fair amount of electricity and we find that our options in terms - from an environmental point of view, aren't that great, so we really like to find greener, cleaner options. We're working really hard on doing that given the existing technologies but, you know, what's out there just economically doesn't make a lot of sense in many areas.

FLATOW: So you're going to be actually investing money in developing new technologies?

Mr. WEIHL: Exactly. Our goal is to make electricity produced from renewable sources cheaper than electricity produced from coal. And in fact, we set a much more specific objective. We planned to develop 1 gigawatt, so 1,000 megawatts of renewable electricity generating capacity, cheaper than coal, that's enough to power a city about the size of San Francisco. And we wanted to do that in years not in decades, so on the order of five years from now, say.

FLATOW: Yeah. Now, tell me why you think you can do it and other people can.

Mr. WEIHL: You know, first of all, I don't think we're going to do this alone. We're doing this partway through internal research and development, partway through investing and working with companies, universities, national labs and so on out there. So it - we think that in fact lots of people can do this. The real problem is the people mostly aren't working on this goal and particularly not working on getting there fast enough.

All of the commercial enterprises - or certainly most of them that we've talked to over the last couple of years - are focused I think rightly so on building businesses. But what that means is that they are doing things that will allow them to sell power at a profit and make a business, you know, today. And that won't necessarily get them to where they're cheaper than coal and particularly cheaper, say, than coal in China anytime soon.

FLATOW: But Google is a business, too.

Mr. WEIHL: We are, but I think this is a case where we're willing perhaps to take on a little more risk or take a longer view in terms of the timeframe than many of the investors out there.

FLATOW: Is there any one particular technology or any one goal - well, can you - are you picking out things in particular or somebody's solar project versus someone else's or some wind project versus someone else's that you're really going to hone in on?

Mr. WEIHL: There's three areas that we're really focusing on. One is solar and particularly right now, solar thermal. The second is wind and particularly looking at high altitude wind, but we're really less interested there and anything that won't drive the cost down. And then the third is geothermal. And all three of those are massive resources that have the potential to supply much of the nation's and the world's electricity needs. Currently, they're, you know, hugely underexploited and those areas are, I think, largely underfunded as well.

FLATOW: Well, speaking of funding, how much money is Google going to invest in it?

Mr. WEIHL: Our plan in 2008 is to invest several tens of millions. Some of that in internal R&D, some of that in investments in companies. I expect we'll invest, you know, comparable amounts in the several years after that. And then when this technology gets to the point where it makes sense to build utility-scale projects, a gigawatt or more, then at that point, we're talking about hundreds of millions obviously in projects that should generate a very positive return.

FLATOW: Will this investment be in U.S. companies, technology, or anyone abroad is open?

Mr. WEIHL: Anyone. Anyone at all. We're not restricting ourselves in any way to the U.S.

FLATOW: Now, we've seen a lot of contests lately, you know, the Ansari X PRIZE for going into space, others for the 100-mile-per-gallon car. Why isn't that the tact that you might be taking, putting up a prize for someone who comes up with this new technology?

Mr. WEIHL: You know, that might be an interesting tactic. Our feeling was this is an area where we have a lot of internal expertise already today that's quite relevant. The work that we've done on making our data centers very energy efficient - thus our large, very energy-intensive facilities. We've done a lot of work to drive the cost out of those and to make them much more energy efficient. Many of the same skills that our engineers here have - will apply to solar thermal, potentially to wind, potentially to geothermal. So our feeling is this is an area where we have internal expertise and a culture of innovation and risk-taking that I think will allow us, hopefully, to make some progress here much faster than simply by putting up a prize.

FLATOW: Did you consider things like say cellulosic ethanol and these - fuel cells and things like that also? Are purposely staying away from those technologies?

Mr. WEIHL: Right now, the focus here is on electricity. And if you want to make electricity, I think that ethanol, whether from cellulosic sources or otherwise, makes sense as a transportation fuel. I think that as a, you know, a sort of stationary source like a big electric plant, it doesn't make a lot of sense. You're better off generating electricity directly than first making ethanol and then using it, for example, to produce electricity. Fuel cells, I think there are some promise there. There's been a lot of progress on things like solid oxide fuel cells in the last few years. But again, I think this is a part where we need to focus a little bit. And we picked some areas where we think that we can make some real difference in the relatively short term.

FLATOW: Talking with Bill Weihl, the green energy czar for Google on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I'm also interested in the politics of this a bit. Is your feeling that there could be a lot more happening that just is languishing and not being looked into here?

Mr. WEIHL: I think that's certainly the case that if I think politically about what's happening around energy, absolutely more could be happening. There's a lot that's needed to address climate change not just technology solutions, and some of that is going to come from policy. But at the same time, I think we can't rely on policy to get us out of this mess. That alone won't do it. The sad fact is that today, for example, coal supplies 40 percent of our electricity globally, 50 percent in the U.S., and one of the major reasons is that it's cheap. And independent of the policies that we put in place and that the world puts in place, I think for a long time to come until cleaner sources are equally cheap, it's going to be very hard to displace coal and other polluting sources.

FLATOW: We've seen the states taking leads in wind and solar now, you know. Texas, California - they're doing their own projects.

Mr. WEIHL: Yeah.

FLATOW: They're not waiting.

Mr. WEIHL: No, they're not and I think that's great and that's definitely driving the industry. And what we're hoping to do with this project is to help catalyze things so that we move to lower prices much, much faster.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there any - and I'm also interested in why you did not focus on energy efficiency because experts tell us that's the biggest single thing we could do to cut back on energy consumption.

Mr. WEIHL: We actually have been doing a lot on energy efficiency and I would agree completely with all those experts. I think - I can't remember if it's (unintelligible) someone said, you know, the cheapest watts(ph) is the one that you don't have to build, you know. And megawatts are much cheaper than kilowatts and megawatts, and that's absolutely true. And we've had people here working for years to make our servers and our data centers extremely energy efficient.

Earlier this year, we cofounded with about 40 other companies the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, which is working to drive higher efficiency throughout the computer industry, so that all computers can be as efficient as the servers that we use - that's absolutely important. But energy efficiency alone, while I think it's vital and we have to do it, isn't going to solve the climate problem. You know, if we made everything in the world much more energy efficient, we'd still be burning a lot of coal.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's hear what your - I got about a minute left - tell me what your schedule, you think how fast you can come up with something really exciting.

Mr. WEIHL: I think - well, I hope…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEIHL: …I mean, I don't want to make promises I'm going to be held to here. I hope that we will have a strong group put together over the next few months and that it will grow over the next year to on the order of 20 or 30 people. And I think that within two years, we should have some very interesting things to talk about. But, you know, until we really start digging into much more of the details - we've been doing that some, but until we actually start building prototypes and so on - it's going be a little hard to predict exactly when.

FLATOW: Are available technologies here, they're just not being assembled, or do you need to start over again?

Mr. WEIHL: I don't think we need to start over. As I said, we will be working with lots of the people who've been doing some great work in this area, but I think that there is some technology advancement that's required certainly to get down to the kind of price that you need to compete with coal.

FLATOW: Bill Weihl, thank you for taking time to be with us and a happy holiday season to you.

Mr. WEIHL: Thanks. My pleasure. And Happy Holidays to you. too.

FLATOW: Thank you. Bill Weihl is the green energy czar for Google. He's joining us from San Francisco talking about Google's new investment into alternative energies.

That's about it. We have run out of time today.

If you'd like to write us, send your letters to SCIENCE FRIDAY, 4 West 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York 10036. And if you would like to surf over to our Web site, if you missed any of the videos we were talking about today, we have them up on our Web site. You can click on them and watch that interesting experiment. And also you can go to iTunes and download the video podcast and just search for the SCIENCE FRIDAY videos over there. Also we're blogging and folks are still in "Second Life" wearing their SCIENCE FRIDAY T-shirts waiting to talk to you in Science School and you might go over there and drop by and say hello to those folks there.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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