Google Invests Big In Clean Energy

Matthew Magain
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eSolar logoCalifornian power company eSolar, which is focussed on building small-scale solar power plants, has raised $130 million in funding including $10 million capital from Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org.

eSolar said it would use the money from Google.org, Idealab and Oak Investment Partners to make and install pre-fabricated solar-thermal power plants near towns and cities. The company said its plants will generate up to 33 megawatts, typically enough power for up to 25,000 California homes, and that several of these plants could be connected to create a larger facility.

Solar thermal systems differ from traditional solar panel plants in that they collect heat from the sun and use it to boil water into steam, which spins a turbine to create power. One advantage of solar thermal systems is that the heat can be stored for hours, or even days, improving the plant’s ability to generate energy “on demand”.

It’s terrific to see some serious backing of a company driven to make a business of renewable energy, but one question comes to mind — is this an investment or a donation?

If it’s an investment, does it really count as philanthropy? I don’t want to take the wind out of the sails of a project that I hope succeeds. But let’s be clear when something is philanthropic and when it is a straight-out investment. eSolar’s goal is to create renewable energy at a price that is cheaper than that created from fossil fuels. The clean technology industry is big business and a smart investment, not philanthropy.

Credit to Google for putting its money where its mouth is, though — their Mountain View, CA offices use a 1.6 megawatt (MW) solar panel installation that generates 30% of the power used by those buildings, and I’m aware of a bunch of other programs aimed at reducing Google’s carbon footprint to zero.

Read more about solar thermal energy here, here and on Google’s RE<C (Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal) page.

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  • Vangelis

    Investment or donation, in any case it’s a good thing to do.
    If they are making money from it, even better. Seeing someone making money with renewable energy is probably a better motivation for others to follow along than the good feeling of doing the right thing.

  • http://www.caseyburk.com Wolf_22

    …I don’t get it. Philanthropy and investing go hand-in-hand.

  • http://www.magain.com/ mattymcg

    @Wolf_22: It depends on the investor’s expectation, I suppose. If there is no expectation of an ROI, and the investment is basically a donation done out of generosity, rather than being a business decision, then that’s what I would consider philanthropic. Otherwise it’s just an investment.

  • http://www.caseyburk.com Wolf_22

    So is your argument with all this concerning the verbiage or the convention behind the business relationship?

  • http://www.magain.com/ mattymcg

    @Wolf_22: I’ve since read more about google.org’s approach, which is to make both investments and grants. So if they’re investing in a for-profit company in order to return profits to true charities, they’ve got no argument from me.

  • Anonymous

    This is great news! Google is becoming well respected in my book.

  • simshaun

    Whether it is an investment or not, it’s still reducing pollution (by however a small amount that may be; every bit counts).

  • http://www.digitalgreenlight.com busy

    We need to see more of this. I spoke with the energy engineer who for the University near me and he said that the main reason we aren’t seeing more progress with clean energy is because all the major research is being funded by the current energy giants. Basically they’re moving forward, but they have a pretty good idea of how fast (or slow) this stuff will be developed so that they can maintain profits and keep their positions in the industry.

    Research money, or in this case actual development money from sources outside the industry is our best chance for speeding up the process.

  • okparrothead

    Thanks to Matthew for bringing this up.
    I think Google’s actions should be applauded.

    While I don’t see Google doing anything for free, the fact that someone, anyone, is contributing to R&D for solar energy is a plus in my book. Our government is so beholden to other interests that funds from that sector for research into solar energy have been meager at best.

    Google is covering its own behind, however.

    The company recently began construction of a server farm just north of my home town, Tulsa. To secure the construction of the plant in this location, a bill passed through the local legislature that Google’s energy usage would not be made public.

    Estimates printed in the paper put electricity consumption of the server farm at equivalent to a small community of about 6,000 residents.

    So while I think Google’s efforts to find clean energy are self serving, in the long run their donations/investements/whatever into the advancement of solar energy will contribute greatly to the knowledgebase concerning solar power, which is all to the good.

    Looking way ahead, this may be the real end run around the oil companies!