Google Plans to Produce a Gigawatt of Clean Energy, Cheaper Than Coal

Google just announced an initiative to develop electricity from clean sources that will be cheaper than electricity produced from coal. In true geek fashion, they’re calling it “RE less than C” or “Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal.” The search giant will be looking to hire between 20 and 30 engineers and experts to develop renewable power technology from sources like solar thermal, wind power and enhanced geothermal systems. On a conference call, Google co-founder Larry Page said the initiative would spend “tens of millions of dollars on R&D,” and ultimately hope to produce a “gigawatt of renewable energy capacity,” in years, not decades.

Page said that Google (GOOG) will use its knowledge of designing power-hungry data centers to tackle the challenge of researching and productizing clean energy. The company hopes to deploy clean energy sources for its own uses for its data centers (many of which are powered by coal plants) and possibly license that technology to other customers. Bill Weihl, Google’s green energy czar, said on the call that the company is looking to develop clean energy sources at a cost in the range of one to three cents per kilowatt hour. Coal, by comparison, can cost somewhere around four cents per kilowatt hour.

Google says it also plans to invest “hundreds of millions of dollars” in renewable energy projects and startups. According to the company’s release, Google.org has already started working with Pasadena, Calif.-based solar thermal startup eSolar and Alameda, Calif.-based wind developer Makani Power. Though Google wouldn’t disclose more details about possible investments in these two companies.

Leave it to Google to try to tackle an industry as seemingly out of their realm as energy. Of course, Google is a massive power consumer, so the connection is easy to make, and the feel-good Google execs haven’t likely felt right about their data center’s contribution to dirty-power generation. But if Google can actually successfully develop clean energy sources that are cheaper than coal and create a business around licensing them (through their investments or their own technology), it would do nothing short of revolutionizing the energy industry. Much like the situation the telecom world is facing with Google’s wireless plans, here’s to the old-world, slow-moving energy industry getting a kickstart from that 20 percent time!

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