Back in November, the Google guys said they planned to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on renewable energy projects, but offered few details as to where the funds would go. Then today, Google’s philanthropic arm Google.org, which will put 1 percent of the company’s equity plus 1 percent of annual profits towards do-gooder projects, said they will spend at least $25 million on five core initiatives to fight climate change, as well as emerging threats, infectious diseases and poverty. And of that $25 million, $10 million will be invested in solar thermal startup eSolar.
eSolar is a Pasadena, Calif.-based solar thermal startup founded by Bill Gross in 2007 as part of his company IdeaLab. (Internet entrepreneur Gross has had brushes with Google before, like selling them his online photo publishing platform Picasa in 2004). Google said back in November that it was working with eSolar, but wouldn’t disclose more details about a possible funding. According to its press release today, Google says it has “closed that investment deal.”
eSolar hopes to improve upon solar thermal by designing scalable power plants with smaller heliostats — mirrors that track the sun’s rays, and reflect the light to boil water and produce steam that powers a turbine. The heliostats themselves are smaller than most being built for the market and each plant’s thermal towers have an array of heliostats. The design allows the solar power plant to be able to scale up to 500 MW from 25 MW. And the independent units can ensure that the entire array doesn’t go down if one unit hiccups.
The eSolar investment comes as part of the initiative RE cheaper than coal, in which Google plans to produce a gigawatt of renewable energy for less than coal power. In a phone press briefing, Google.org Director Larry Brilliant said the company has “looked hard at climate change, and it became clear that we can’t win the battle to preserve the Earth’s atmosphere unless oil and coal stay in the ground.”
Cheap renewables is the focus of just one of Google.org’s five projects (we also previously wrote about another of the 5 projects: Google’s plug-in vehicle project RechargeIt). The other three initiatives announced today aren’t specifically focused on climate change but will use information technology to combat infectious diseases and poverty. The initiatives consist of grants for early warning systems aimed at identifying disease hotpots, called Predict and Prevent; disseminating government services, called Inform and Empower to Improve Public Services; and helping small businesses in developing countries, which will be known as the Growth of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises.
While it’s easy to scoff at a $25 million initial investment from a company with a market cap of $192 billion, Brilliant reiterated on the call that Google is just at the starting line of its do-gooder investments.