Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Energy Futures

The Energy Blog reports that Google is investing in people and companies who have good ideas for making solar energy cheaper than coal.

Esolar_array_2Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) today announced a new strategic initiative to develop electricity from renewable energy sources that will be cheaper than electricity produced from coal. The newly created initiative, known as RE<C, will focus initially on advanced solar thermal power, wind power technologies, enhanced geothermal systems and other potential breakthrough technologies.

In 2008, Google expects to spend tens of millions on research and development and related investments in renewable energy. As part of its capital planning process, the company also anticipates investing hundreds of millions of dollars in breakthrough renewable energy projects which generate positive returns.
The difficulty here is that the odds of a real break through in this area that can be capitalized on is vanishingly small. The reason? Google is not the only pool of money looking for investments in this area.

The solar problem like fusion problem is tough. In fact the two problems are similar. Fusion is easy. Collecting solar energy is easy. The hard part with fusion is getting the energy output up to commercial usefulness. And by commercial usefulness I mean selling the electricity for a price people are willing to pay. Solar has the same problem.

With solar the odds of a breakthrough are small because so many people have picked over the pieces. In my opinion the odds of a fusion break through are better. Why? The science involved is not as well understood. Any place you have a knowledge hole the opportunities for a breakthrough are better. However, the risks are also higher. Advances in knowledge may prove that what you thought possible is not.


Anonymous said...

The odds of a solar breakthrough are zero, because the problem with solar isn't really the technology, it's the low amount of energy that actually hits the earth's surface. You can't make a high-energy power source out of a low-energy one.

LarryD said...

Wind power is diffuse, too. Same for tides or waves.

Which means that the collectors have to be large, so you can concentrate the energy enough for it to be useful. Which doesn't mean there can't be improvements.

M. Simon said...


Their statement that conventional turbines use a lot of acreage is bunk.

It is about 1/4 acre per turbine including access roads if installed on farmland.

Anonymous said...

This isn't about alternative energy. It's about public relations. Google is a very high profile comapny and wants to be seen as green. It's fashionable with customers and you avoid being targeted by extremists. The program will probably be much smaller than the press release implies. In 5 years there will be another press release that their green energy program is being phased out.

Anonymous said...

Hey! Maybe Google is thinking about putting a Solar Power Satellite into orbit! That would warrant all the hoopla for sure!

Seriously, the big need in energy/power technology is energy storage and load leveling. If Google doesn't touch either of those with this initiative, they are just spinning their wheels.

Photovoltaics and wind energy are evolving just fine without Google. They talk about "advanced geothermal" but what do they mean?

I like Brian Wang's idea of using nuclear reactors to extract shale oil in the Green River basin. Opening up an energy supply 3 times Saudi Arabia's reserves would be worth a press conference.

LarryD said...

...if installed on farmland.

A key conditional. I've see plenty of pictures of wind farms that weren't on farmland. But it's hardly surprising that they'd be prone to overstate the case for their technology.

Speaking of energy futures, heavy oil extraction technology is improving

Joseph said...

I saw no mention of nuclear energy in their press release or web site. That makes me dubious about this program.