Summit News

Google green energy czar: It's a bit bleak

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Google Inc's GOOG.O search for cheap renewable energy has not found many great breakthrough ideas, and the company's focus has shifted toward funding big projects from financing risky technologies, the company's green energy czar said on Tuesday.

Bill Weihl, Google's Green Energy Czar, speaks to reporters at a Reuters Energy Summit in San Francisco, California, October 12, 2010. REUTERS/Kim White

Google in 2007 launched a project to develop renewable energy cheaper than coal, the world’s biggest power plant fuel, and for a year it launched a flurry of investments in small alternative energy companies with promising technologies.

There has been little action since, and that’s because it has not received that many “home run” ideas.

“It’s a little bit bleak,” Bill Weihl, who heads Google’s renewable energy team, told the Reuters Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit in San Francisco.

“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.”

The government needs to put even more money into university and other research grants to act as seed money for ideas, some of which are bound to fail, he said. Google, meanwhile, is putting more of its own money into projects that are no longer cutting edge but not yet mainstream -- like wind farms.

“A lot of our early work was very focused on what you might think of as the early stage research and development,” Weihl said. “In the last year we’ve been a little more focused on finding things that will drive the demonstration and deployment end.”

Google and partners this week said they would fund development of a multibillion-dollar transmission line for ocean-based wind farms off the U.S. Northeast coast, the third wind-related investment this year.

Google wants its name and money to catalyze other investors and show the promise of investing in alternative energy. One of its three deals, a 20-year wind farm investment, for instance, made economic sense as insurance against higher energy prices in years to come.

Promoting big projects will help bring down the costs of alternative energy, he said. But he said the goal of producing renewable energy cheaper than coal was still years away, and that breakthroughs still will be needed.

“It will be less than a decade, I have high hopes for that. But you know I was probably overly optimistic two years ago, three years ago, or even last year,” he said.

Google itself has one home-run hopeful -- a mirror, or heliostat, that could improve the efficiency of solar thermal projects that use the heat of the sun to power a boiler and produce electricity.

“I think we are making good progress. I am hopeful in the order of a year we will have something interesting to show,” he said.

Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by Steve Orlofsky