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Google searches for clean, cheap energy

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Google continues to surprise and delight, most recently with the announcement of a program to develop one gigawatt of renewable electricity at a price cheaper than coal. One gigawatt is roughly enough electricity to power San Francisco.

Not that the specific amount is what matters. Rather, the idea is to deliver clean electricity at industrial scale and at market-competitive prices. Reaching this symbolic milestone would raise hope that we can break the coal habit at home and, perhaps more importantly, in the rapidly industrializing Asian economies.

What are the details of Google’s plan? Hard to say from the press release, but their strategy could perhaps best be described as “all of the above”: they’re staffing up with the relevant renewable energy specialists, making investments in early-stage companies, funding basic research, and performing R&D themselves. They’ve announced an early focus on solar thermal energy, high altitude wind, and geothermal systems. But just so no one feels left out, they’ll also consider “other potential breakthrough technologies.”

This is all to the good. Of course, even Google’s considerable resources are a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the global expenditures on energy research and infrastructure development. But the company has a track record of innovation and audacity, both sorely needed in the energy sector.

Google has condensed its goal into a computer-code like shorthand: RE<C (renewable energy cheaper than coal). Behind the shorthand lie further questions: does Google’s gigawatt include the sort of baseload power that coal is so good at providing? And how cheap is coal, exactly, particularly in a carbon-constrained world?

Hopefully we’ll have some answers soon. Larry Page thinks Google can reach its goals in “years, not decades.” Page’s interest in this topic is more than simply altruistic. He hopes Google’s investments will eventually pay off financially as well. As should we all.

Update: The Cleantech Group has some more details from Google’s conference call following the announcement. Still pretty high-level stuff, though — it’s hard to be too specific about technology that doesn’t exist yet. Right now Google thinks the most likely route to market for any technology they develop will be licensing it on favorable terms, although they’re open to other opportunities.

Further update: Charles Komanoff looks more thoroughly at some of the issues I gloss above, and raises a skeptical eyebrow.

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