Google phases out clean energy R&D in favor of deployment
Cross-posted from Climate Progress.
Buried at the bottom of an innocuous “spring cleaning” post on Google’s blog yesterday, the internet giant made a very important announcement: It will stop funding its Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal (RE<C) initiative.
But that’s not the whole story. And if you believe the headlines — “Google Abandons Renewable Energy Push” or “Are Google’s Green Days Over?” — you might think this is a negative development. But if you look at the details, it’s a story about how the company is adapting to a changing market and actually increasing investments in renewables.
Announced in 2007 by Google, RE<C was focused on driving down the cost of renewable electricity (mostly solar and geothermal) to meet the cost of generating electricity from coal. The initiative funded research and development (R&D) in capital-intensive, early-stage technologies that would enable cheaper Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) and Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) projects.
But Google says it’s now shifting its focus to project financing rather than R&D, citing the need for more sophisticated research on CSP technologies beyond Google’s scope, and the rapidly changing economics of solar PV:
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of progress in clean energy. We’re excited that some technologies are so quickly approaching cost competitiveness with traditional forms of energy in parts of the U.S. and the world. Power tower technology has come a long way, too. But the installed cost of solar photovoltaic technology has declined dramatically over the past few years, making solar photovoltaic technology a compelling choice for consumers.
At this point, other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level. So we’ve published our results to help others in the field continue to advance the state of power tower technology, and we’ve closed our efforts. We will continue our work to generate cleaner, more efficient energy — including our on-campus efforts, procuring renewable energy for our data centers, making our data centers even more efficient, and investing more than $850 million in renewable energy technologies.
Although the news was hidden at the bottom of a blog post, this is a pretty important announcement. (Only at Google would they casually “spring clean” millions of dollars in R&D investments for renewable energy).
Firstly, it shows how capital-intensive many of these technologies are. Google invested tens of millions of dollars into R&D for new methods of building CSP plants. Today, we’ve got a number of commercial projects deployed using some of the technologies and methods funded by Google — but even after investing all that money, much of the research is still in the early phases, the company says.
The same goes for Google’s funding of Potter Drilling, a company working on developing a technique for drilling through deep, hard rock called “thermal spallation.” The drill is designed for Enhanced Geothermal projects. Potter has been working on the technique since 2004, with Google investing over $10 million in the company through its RE<C initiative in 2008. But like most development in the EGS sector, progress has been slow, and the drill has not been commercialized yet.
Google’s shift away from these projects doesn’t prove whether or not they’ll be successful. It just shows how much money and time goes into bringing new energy technologies to scale.
Meanwhile, the stunning changes in the economics of solar PV have made market conditions far different today than in 2007. Google has since invested more than $350 million into the deployment of distributed solar, investing in SolarCity and Clean Power Finance, and a variety of projects in Germany. (Google also threw $168 million behind the Ivahpah CSP project, showing that it still has a lot of confidence in that technology too).
Wind is a major part of the company’s portfolio as well. It has invested over $250 million in wind projects around the country, including the world’s largest wind farm, an 845-megawatt project in Oregon.
You can find Google’s full range of investments, totaling $850 million, here.
Even while dropping its high-profile RE<C initiative, Google is investing more than ever in renewables. But it’s choosing deployment over R&D — showing once again that much of the progress in climate solutions will come from actually developing projects.
Research is an extraordinarily important part of building new technologies and making us more competitive. We should never lose sight of that. But we should also recognize the dominant strategy of the largest companies in the world working to bring down the cost of renewables: Deployment, deployment, deployment.