Q&A with Bill Weihl, Google’s "Green Energy Czar"


January 7, 2010 | Breakthrough Staff,

Making clean energy cheaper than coal through investments in game-changing innovation is the critical path to a low-carbon energy future, according to Bill Weihl, Google's "Green Energy Czar" and a Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow. In today's New York Times Green Inc blog, Weihl answers a few questions about what it's like to be on the frontlines of the push for clean energy.

As a consumer of large quantities of energy -- used to run its ever growing data centers -- Google has a personal stake in the business of energy politics. It also has vast sums of revenue from its sponsored ad business, and the kind of creative culture that urges its engineers to think beyond the short-term, profit-centric model that too-often paralyzes large corporations.

From the NYT:

Q: Google is obviously best-known as an Internet company. Why is Google involved with alternative energy in the first place?

A: I'd say there are two reasons. One is that we use a moderate amount of energy ourselves: we have a lot of servers, and we have 22,000 employees around the world with office buildings that consume a lot of energy. So we use energy and we care about the cost of that, we care about the environmental impact of it, and we care about the reliability of it. The other reason is that, starting with the founders and filtering down to many of our employees, people care about environmental issues.

Q: Google's stated aim with regard to energy is to make renewable energy cheaper than coal. How did you arrive at this particular goal?

A: We've learned that a small team of smart people with basic technical expertise and the freedom to really innovate can do something quite remarkable, and we wanted to see if that really could be true for alternative energies. One of the keys there is the freedom to go after a really aggressive goal, and so we set a goal of making renewable energy cheaper than coal - it's a very simple, kind of audacious and crazy goal.

Coal is the energy source of about half the electricity we consume in the U.S. and is responsible for about 82 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector, so until you've done something about the emissions coming from coal, you've made only a tiny dent.

Putting a price on carbon can help level the playing field, but to actually deploy renewables to the extent that we stop burning coal, I believe that's only going to happen if they can compete economically without any substantial price on carbon or substantial subsidies, because I don't think that people will tolerate that. I hope they will; I would be willing to pay that extra cost, but I can afford it. There are lots of people in the developing world who probably would say, I'm not going to pay that.

So that's why we took as our direct goal that we're aiming for, let's make renewables cheaper than coal, and let's make that happen as quickly as we can.

Q: Which technologies do you think are most likely to beat coal?

A: There are three areas we're looking at: concentrated solar thermal, enhanced geothermal and high-altitude wind.

On the concentrated solar side, we've invested in two companies: eSolar and BrightSource, both of which are working on power tower platforms where a field of swiveling mirrors reflects sunlight toward a central tower with a receiver.

We're doing some internal R&D work on the mirrors -- things that eSolar and BrightSource aren't looking at and really shouldn't be looking at: they don't need to take the risks to explore these kinds of designs and materials.

We're also looking at the receiver and turbine technology, looking at some ideas about going to higher temperatures which just from a thermodynamic point of view can give you higher efficiency. But again, I think these are things that both eSolar and BrightSolar are interested in, and if we're successful with the R&D we're doing, they would be natural places to pick it up and start to deploy it.

Enhanced geothermal is based on the idea that pretty much anywhere on earth, if you drill deep enough, it's hot. If it's hot enough and you have the right kind of rock, then you inject water and cycle that water through the system, and it produces energy from steam just like a normal hydrothermal reservoir.

One really nice thing about enhanced geothermal is that it's base load power: the fuel's always there, whereas for solar and wind, sometimes the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow and you can't produce any energy. So we think enhanced geothermal is very promising, and we've invested in AltaRock Energy and Potter Drilling. It has a ways to go before it gets to be really cost-competitive with coal, and it might never quite get there, but it's got a big upside.

The other one that we're looking at is high-altitude wind -- ways to capture the stronger and steadier winds that are at 500 or 1,000 or 2,000 meters high, or potentially even up in the jet stream. Internally, we've been looking at taking traditional wind turbines and putting them on much taller towers so you can get to much stronger steadier winds. Today, with the way people build towers, it would cost a lot more to go up to 200 meters compared to the usual 80 meters. We've been looking at some ideas that would let you go up and build a turbine at 200 meters at very little extra cost. If that pans out, it would be a way to knock 20 or 30 percent off the cost of wind, and wind is pretty close to the cost of coal today.

We've also invested in a company called Makani Power that is doing high-altitude wind using an airborne platform. They've been looking at using a kite or a wing under autonomous control, where the wind pulls the kite out and you change the angle of the tack so you can wheel it back in at less cost than the energy would make going out. The other approach is to use some kind of wing with propellers on it and the generators on the wing. So you're flying a kite through the wind and it's making the propeller spin so it's acting like a wind turbine, and then you have to get the power down the cable back to the ground. There are other companies in that space with some similar ideas. ...

Google has the audacity and the vision to spend money on long-term projects such as these without the need to recoup it immediately, but even Google will not continue pumping money into investments such as these without clear results. Weihl elaborates a little more on the timeframe for its clean energy investments here:

Q: How quickly are you expecting results from your investments?

A: I think we have a higher tolerance for risk and somewhat more patient capital than the typical venture capital firm -- we don't have partners who want their return and exit within three to five years. We've been more willing to take technical risk and more willing to really dive in and understand the technology at a deep technical level.

That said, there definitely is a time horizon in the sense that to really develop the breakthroughs and innovations that are needed to deal with the climate crisis, we need to make renewable energy cheaper than coal in years, not decades. So we may be patient, but we're not saying it'd be fine if it takes 25 years. That's not fine. But our goal was to invest both internally and through equity investments in things that have the potential to really bear fruit in the three-to-seven-year time frame, and hopefully at least one or two will.

Q: What does the pathway to cheap renewable energy at scale look like? Do you think there's enough political and societal will to make it happen?

A: As a society, we have chosen to invest too little in alternative energy over the years, and that has made some of the choices much harder than they should be. We should have been investing much more in solar [photovoltaics] since the 1970s than we have. We should be investing in new wind technologies that promise substantially lower cost. We should be investing in enhanced geothermal, we should be investing in cheaper, safer, cleaner nuclear. We should be investing in figuring out how to do carbon capture and sequestration for coal plants in a way that's cheap and energy efficient. We should be investing in all that stuff, and that's even before you get to the stuff that's outside the mainstream.

But to do that, it means you're not going to invest very much in any one of those areas, and that is a huge problem. As a country, we're investing $1-3 billion per year in clean energy R&D depending on how you count it; with the stimulus package, I think we're up to $6 billion for a couple of years. But at the end of 2010, when the stimulus ends, we're going to drive off the biggest funding cliff the energy field has ever seen. So I think as a society, we need to be investing much more to drive innovation and help new products get to full-scale commercialization. We need to invest across the spectrum.

I believe that the problems we're facing are solvable, but they're not going to solve themselves. And solving them is either going to require spending a lot more money on energy than we're spending today, which I think is probably a non-starter, or it's going to require major technological innovation. That's where I think Google can help.