The phrase “to Google” has become synonymous with “to search.” But soon it may connote something altogether different: “to green.” That is, if the internet titan can successfully pull off its latest world-changing endeavor.

Bill Weihl.

In late 2007, the dot-com giant announced its intention to make renewable energy cheaper than coal. The RE<C program aims to produce one gigawatt of electricity generating capacity — enough to power the city of San Francisco — from clean, green sources “within years, not decades.” The man responsible for making it happen, and for making the company carbon neutral, is Bill Weihl, Google’s flamboyantly titled “green energy czar.” He’ll have hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal to get the job done.

This is not Google’s first foray into clean-tech: Since 2006, the company has been investing mightily in R&D for plug-in hybrids and renewable-energy innovation via its for-profit philanthropy arm, Google.org.

But the scope and ambition of RE<C dwarfs previous efforts — and raises some questions. For one, why is Google refusing to disclose how much energy it consumes? For another, why does the green energy czar have a background in computers instead of power plants? And, most importantly, why should we believe an internet company can solve the world’s energy crisis?

Weihl spoke to me from his office in Seattle.


Let’s start with your title. Who came up with it, and what does it mean?

It was my boss’s suggestion. My title before that was something like “energy strategist,” and he said, “You need a better title, something fun. How about green energy czar?” I thought, “That sounds pretty good.”

What exactly are your responsibilities?

Narrowly speaking, my job is to make Google’s energy supplies much cleaner, particularly focused on our data centers, which make up the bulk of our energy consumption.

But my boss and the founders have made clear that the goal isn’t just to make Google green. We could green our operations completely tomorrow, but if we just did that, the world wouldn’t care, the climate certainly wouldn’t care — we’re not that big.

The real goal is to do this in a way that has a much broader impact. So it really gets into how we might invest in both renewable energy companies and internal R&D to help advance the state of technology and renewable markets — to make renewable energy truly mainstream, not just a tiny fraction of the energy supply.

Your mandate, specifically, is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity more cheaply than coal-generated energy within years, not decades. That’s an immense challenge. What’s your plan of action?

We’re going to invest tens of millions of dollars each year over the next few years in our own people, lab space, building prototypes, and investing in start-up companies. All of this will be aimed at developing technologies that are proved at least at a pilot scale, and then ready to be manufactured and deployed at gigawatt-and-beyond scales in, say, five years.

There are lots of companies and research groups doing work on technologies that have a reasonable chance of getting to the price point we’re talking about in 15 or 20 years, but we feel that there’s both an urgent problem as well as an opportunity that demands getting there much faster, if at all possible. From a climate point of view, we can’t afford to wait 15 or 20 years to really start to curb global emissions in a big way.

What renewable technologies are you focusing on — far-out concepts, or proven technologies like solar panels and wind turbines?

We are not at the moment focused on solar panels and traditional wind turbines. We are looking quite generally at solar, wind, and geothermal because those are pretty large resources that could potentially, any one of them, supply a very large fraction of the world’s energy needs.

But there are technology problems that need to be solved, including cost and the fact that solar and wind are intermittent resources, they’re not there all the time, which means if you want to have them be a large fraction of your electricity supply, you need to figure out how to store that kind of energy on a very large scale. There’s also the issue of transmission, because the best solar and wind resources are in regions of the country where there aren’t a lot of people and a lot of demand. So we need better high-voltage lines to allow you to move more power long distances.

What’s an example of something you are working on?

In the realm of solar, we’re concentrating on solar thermal technologies that capture the sun’s energy as heat and use that to make steam, which then drives a steam turbine — just as a coal plant might burn coal and use steam. (Photovoltaic panels, by contrast, convert the sun’s light directly into electricity.) It’s actually relatively cheap and easy to store the heat for a few hours, which makes this thermal plant one of most promising options for making solar a constant, base-load power source.

Many argue that coal’s price advantage over renewables is an illusion, that the real costs of coal are not represented in its market price. So effectively you’re fighting on a tilted playing field. Would Google lobby for regulatory measures that would level the playing field, like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system?

We might. We’ve been talking about that. I think generally we are supportive of internalizing those externalities.

At the same time, if you realistically look at the price differential between renewables and nonrenewables today, even with, say, a $30-per-ton price on carbon — which is pretty high compared to what’s been seen in the European trading system so far, or what’s been proposed as a likely target of a carbon cap or tax in this country — that might still not quite narrow the gap between renewables and coal. So we need the technology side, too.

At Google, our focus for the moment is on driving the cost of renewables down as much as possible. And if society manages to raise the cost of coal, then that will help renewables compete.

But remember, this is a global problem, it’s not just a U.S. problem. China and India are rapidly increasing their use of coal. It strikes me as unlikely that they will put a substantial price on carbon anytime soon. So even if we make renewables competitive with coal in the U.S. with a carbon price, that still won’t be cheap enough to really matter in China and India — in which case the climate is still in deep trouble.

What would you say your chances of success are for RE<C?

Well, it’s funny. Some people just say, “You guys are absolutely nuts.” They assume we have no idea what the challenges are. I think we do have a pretty good idea of what the challenges are. The challenge I would throw out to everyone else is that we all need to address these challenges. We at Google are willing to take them on.

I think there’s a chance — maybe it’s 10 percent, maybe it’s 20 percent, some people probably think it’s 1 percent — that we’ll be completely successful at hitting our goal.

The question is, if we don’t hit that goal of making renewables cheaper than coal in four or five or six years, where do we end up? One possibility is we completely fail, and at the end of that time we have nothing. I think that is an extremely unlikely outcome. A more likely scenario is that we don’t quite get to a price point that’s cheaper than coal, or we don’t get there as quickly as we want, so it takes us 10 years. In either of those scenarios, we will have technologies that we can license or that can lead to very large spin-off businesses, which will be good for us and our shareholders, and also will help increase the amount of renewables used in the world substantially.

My general feeling is that if you aim low, you’re unlikely to get very high.

Let’s say your RE<C goal is successful. How quickly do you think renewable sources would scale up once they’re cost competitive? How soon would they fully supplant conventional energy sources, if ever?

That’s very hard to predict. If you look at the transition in our overall energy infrastructure over the last 150 years, it tends to go in 30-year cycles. So I think that one simple answer would be it’ll probably take 30 years to supplant the traditional system with the new system, at least in great part.

Another answer is that it should be possible to accelerate that if our society takes it on as a goal and we are willing to invest the money and intellectual capital to reach it.

Do you support, as Al Gore and James Hansen have recommended, a freeze on the development of new coal plants in the U.S.?

We don’t have a policy on that at the moment. I think the U.S. needs to stop increasing emissions and start decreasing as soon as possible, so not constructing new coal plants is probably a useful step in that direction.

What’s your take on the premise of “clean coal”? Would you support IGCC [PDF] and carbon sequestration if they’re commercially proven?

Yeah. If they’re really commercially proven, that’s way better than dirty coal. It would be a huge advance. But I don’t think that that alone is going to be enough. We need cleaner technologies that don’t have all the other impacts of coal from mining and so on.

Have you been getting any pushback from King Coal?

No.

You are also charged with the task of making Google carbon neutral. What strategies are you implementing to this end?

There are three pieces. The first is energy efficiency, and that really should be the first on anybody’s list. For a number of years, we’ve been designing our own servers and data centers. Our computing facilities use less than half the energy of a typical industry facility for the same amount of useful computing. That is a huge competitive advantage for us.

Second thing is to deploy renewables as widely as you can, and the major step we’ve taken to date on that is the 1.6-megawatt photovoltaic array here on our Mountain View campus. We committed in June to deploy a minimum of 50 megawatts of renewables by 2012; I would expect that we’ll do more than that.

Third, once we’ve done everything we can around energy efficiency and renewables to reduce our emissions, we’re investing in offset projects that, for example, eliminate methane emissions from landfills, coal mines, or agricultural waste.

Do you see offsets as a last resort?

That’s right. I would describe offsets as something that if that’s all you do, then it is tantamount to greenwashing.

Why is Google declining to disclose its total energy and carbon footprint? How can the public hold you accountable to your pledge if they don’t know what kind of energy you’re using?

The size of our operation — in terms of number of servers, the amount of computing power — is a closely guarded secret, because it is information that would be extremely valuable to our competitors. If we disclosed our electricity consumption or carbon footprint, that would allow people to essentially back-calculate approximately how many servers we have, etc.

How can people can trust that we actually are hitting our target? We have contracted with Environmental Resources Trust, an independent nonprofit that does exactly these kinds of audits and verifications, to validate our carbon inventory, our measurement and accounting of our footprint, and to validate that we have purchased quality offsets.

More and more technology companies and leaders are getting involved in the energy sector. We see Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla promoting ethanol and IBM investing hugely in green technology, for instance. How would you explain this crossover between the digital revolution and the clean-energy revolution?

I think it’s motivated by two issues. One is that people see a huge problem that needs a solution: growing emissions are contributing to climate change, which could have a devastating impact on many parts of the world. Two, that problem presents an enormous opportunity to innovate and develop solutions that then can make a lot of money. The amount of money in the energy sector is enormous, so even if you can only solve a small part of the problem, you can still make a lot of money.

Also, electricity is the blood of your data centers. If we don’t have a sustainable energy solution, we don’t have an internet.

That’s right. Google has a vested interest in maintaining a stable, reliable, reasonably affordable supply of energy. And as economies and energy use keep growing around the world, the price of fossil-fuel-based energy is not going anywhere but up. That’s a trend that doesn’t bode well for our cost structure over the 10- to 20-year time frame.

Why are you the right guy for Google’s green energy czar job?

I guess to actually answer that I can’t be too modest: I think I’m really smart. I have a deep understanding of science and engineering. The bulk of my professional training was in computers, hardware and software, but I’ve been interested in renewable energy and sustainability forever, and for the last number of years increasingly interested in the issue of climate change and what we can do about it.

This problem requires somebody who can really understand and deal with both the big picture as well as the technical issues around developing the solutions that we need. That’s the kind of thing I’m very good at.

So you’re a computer guy, not an energy guy, by training. Do you think coming at this problem from the outside gives you an advantage because you look at it in a different way?

Yes. Coming from the outside, you don’t know what’s impossible yet. That was one of the great things I learned when I taught at MIT: students came in and they didn’t know much, but they managed to do things that you might have thought couldn’t be done.

What are you doing personally to reduce your carbon footprint?

I’ve got my mother’s voice in the back of my head telling me and my kids, “Turn off the lights.” My mother was an environmentalist in some ways before there were environmentalists: we were recycling and composting before anybody knew what those words were.

We have a Prius and a [Toyota] Sienna minivan, which isn’t as efficient, but it’s not bad. We put solar panels on the roof of our house about a year and a half ago. We’ve got a tankless on-demand water heater. We’ve done a lot of insulation and weather-stripping. We put in energy-efficient light bulbs. We turn our computers off or put them to sleep when we’re not using them.

For us and for most people, if something becomes inconvenient or in some way involves sacrifice, in the end people don’t do it very much. So we need to find a way to make it happen automatically and to make it be something that doesn’t involve major compromises. There are enormous opportunities to do that in a lot of sectors.