How Will Google Spend Its Cleantech Cash?

When Google pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on clean energy R&D and cleantech startups back in November, we all wondered how the search engine giant would spend those funds given its lack of experience in the energy industry. Down in Palm Springs, Calif., at the Clean Tech Investor Summit, Google.org’s director of climate and energy Initiatives, Dan Reicher, shed some light on their investing strategy, saying Google plans on funding “high-risk” clean energy projects that have proven difficult to finance, while at the same time looking to invest in more cleantech startups in areas like solar thermal and plug-in vehicles.

Reicher said that there have been two large gaps in renewable energy funding, including a lack of investment in clean energy R&D, and a shortage of funding in high-risk innovative clean energy technologies and projects. Google has the capital that can take on those high-risk projects, explained Reicher, who also asked the audience that was filled with entrepreneurs and investors, to “send us your business plans.”

Last year Google shocked the energy industry when it decided to jump into the power production game with its initiative to make clean energy cheaper than coal-based power within a few years. Like Google has done in wireless and other industries, the company can use its deep pockets and bright minds to disrupt industries that have entrenched players.

Given that Google uses a massive amount of power for its data centers, it hopes to make some of that energy cleaner and cheaper for financial reasons. Reicher stressed that the company thinks it can make money from clean energy investing. But at the same time, Google has pledged to invest in projects that “make the world a better place” through Google.org.

What kind of startups and projects is Google looking for? Google has already invested $10 million in Bill Gross’ solar thermal company eSolar, along with an undisclosed investment in high-altitude wind company Makani. Reicher told the audience that Google is “looking at a number of other companies in the solar thermal area,” and that over the next couple of months, it will also make a series of investments in plug-in electric vehicle-related companies.

When it comes to clean energy projects, the company is focusing on investing in solar thermal, advanced wind technologies and geothermal, as well as enabling technologies like energy storage, transmission and information technology that can further advance clean energy. Google particularly wants to fund technologies that can scale to large, utility-sized power and have had a hard time getting funding because they are so new and risky. Reicher called this lack of funding for these large projects the “Valley of Death.”

Does that make Google the shepherd? More like a tour guide that’s going to take a nice cut at the end. But no doubt Reicher’s speech meant plenty of business plans are being sent over to Google HQ. Are you sending yours?

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