Why Google Invests in Clean Energy

Last year, Google invested more than $915 million in clean energy projects — solar, wind and transmission.

That’s a lot of money, even for Google, which had $38 billion in revenues in 2011. The investments don’t appear to be core to the company’s mission of organizing information, and they have attracted criticism, as well as some careless reporting, implying that the Internet giant is exiting the alternative energy business.

Does Google have an energy policy? Does it need one?

To find out, I recently went to see Rick Needham, Google’s director of green business operations, at the company’s fabled headquarters (well, fabled for a 13-year-old company, anyway) in Mountain View, CA.

I came away not merely persuaded that Google’s energy investments make sense, but thinking that other companies that consume lots of electricity and have a pile of cash on their balance sheets — Apple, Microsoft and GE come to mind — should consider deploying some of their cash in the clean energy sector.

Clean-energy investing isn’t philanthropy for Google. It’s business. In fact, it’s a classic double-bottom line investment, one that is intended to deliver environmental as well as financial benefits.

“We originally came at this by asking how we can make ourselves a more sustainable company,” Needham told me. But Google executives have come to believe that the company can generate healthy, long-term returns by investing in wind farms, utility-scale solar plants and even solar photovoltaic panels on the rooftops of homes and businesses. “It’s a way of helping us to diversify our cash, put it into businesses that can earn good returns and that aren’t correlated to other investments,” Needham said.

Rick NeedhamNeedham, who is 41, has an interesting background. He’s a graduate of the US Naval Academy, has a master’s in aeronautical engineering from MIT and an MBA from Harvard. He spent eight years as a submarine officer, and then worked for Dean Kamen at DEKA Research on a project to develop a cleaner burning combustion engine. He’s been with Google since 2008.

Press reports last fall indicated that Google was dropping its clean-energy initiatives. Wrong. What happened was that the company shut down a small group of engineers who were researching solar power, among other things. The company is still working aggressively on data-center efficiency, procuring clean power for its data centers and investing in clean-energy projects elsewhere, as Needham explained.

These are big investments. Google put $100 million into Shepherd’s Flat, an Oregon wind farm that is expected to be the world’s largest, with 845MW of capacity. The company put $168 million into the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a solar thermal plant being operated by BrightSource Energy. It has invested in distributed, rooftop solar, through a $280 million project with Solar City and a $75 million fund with Clean Power Finance. Most recently, it invested $94 million, alongside private equity fund KKR, in a portfolio of four solar PV projects being built by Recurrent Energy.

Google isn’t betting on any one kind of renewable power because its executives believe that wind, solar thermal and solar PV all have a role to play in generating electricity. “The source of energy in the future is going to be clean energy,” Needham said, but no single source will dominate. “You wouldn’t put a solar on the windy planes of North Dakota if you could put a turbine there,” he noted.

While clean energy deployment still depends on government subsidies, he said: “We’re getting to the place where the technology will allow you to have a low cost of power.
Costs of wind turbine have come down. Costs of PV have dropped, just 40 percent in the last year. It’s amazing how the cost curves have come down.”

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