If the cleantech industry isn’t delivering enough innovation, we’ll start building it ourselves, was the suggestion of Google’s green guru Bill Weihl in comments reported by Reuters at the media company’s Global Climate and Alternative Energy Summit in San Francisco on Wednesday. Partly due to a lack of industry innovation Weihl said that Google is developing its own solar thermal mirrors, which concentrate the sun for solar power plants, as well as gas turbines that would run on solar power rather than natural gas. Google spokesperson Niki Fenwick confirmed with us that the search engine has a “handful of dedicated full-time green engineers” working on green technologies as part of its Renewable Energy Less Than Coal Project.
Weihl told the Reuters audience that Google is looking to cut the cost of developing the solar mirrors by at least a factor of 2 (but ideally a factor or 3 or 4) by using unusual materials. While Google’s Fenwick told us that the mirrors are in early stage and internal development, Weihl was reported as saying Google could have a viable technology to show internally within a couple of months.
The news stands out for a number of reasons. First Google has invested in both solar thermal companies eSolar and BrightSource, so it’s interesting that Google’s Weihl is reported as saying: “I’m very hopeful we will have mirrors that are cheaper than what companies in the space are using.” I’m not sure what the Google engineers can bring to the table that a combination of hundreds of employees with backgrounds in solar can’t do.
But who knows! Google has always driven its own path when it comes to cost-cutting and innovation. Google famously builds its own servers and data centers instead of contracting with third parties because the search engine giant says it can make them more efficiently. I asked Fenwick if Google’s solar thermal technology is meant to power Google services — like a solar-powered data center — and Fenwick said not necessarily, although she said Google would certainly like to have access to more affordable sources of renewable energy.
Ultimately Google’s clean power development work could also be a way to light a fire under greentech startups and utilities, and increase the level of innovation coming out of the green pipeline. Weihl sort of threw down that gauntlet at the Reuters conference when he stated he has been “a little bit discouraged,” with the level of innovation. But hey, if a call to action, and competition, from Google can boost innovation, more power to them.