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What’s up with Google and biomass power?

Out of all of Google’s (s GOOG) close to $1 billion in clean power projects, turning biomass into energy seems like the least relevant technology to Google’s core business. But Google has made a few small investments into biofuels and biomass to energy projects including a venture investment into CoolPlanetBiofuels earlier this year, and one I learned about this week: a project that turns waste from hog farms into electricity in North Carolina.

The article about the hog waste project, which was published in the Los Angeles Times, says Google invested part of the $1.2 million it cost to build the project that uses bacteria to digest hog poop, burn methane to produce electricity and convert ammonia into nitrogen for fertilizer. Duke University and the farmer Loyd Bryant were the other financiers of the system.

The article notes Google has a data center nearby, and Google will earn carbon offset credits from the system. Like some of Google’s other clean power micro investments, the project could be a way for Google to investigate ways to tap into distributed power in local regions, for either its data centers or offices. (There’s no indication this one in North Carolina will be powering anything Google related).

Remember Google was the first customer for Bloom Energy’s fuel cell, which can use biofuel, as well as natural gas and biogas, to produce electricity. Google used the Bloom Energy fuel cells to provide power in a data center test lab. Distributed energy production could be a way for Google to manage and control power costs.

Back when Google invested in CoolPlanetBiofuels, Google Ventures’ Managing Partner, Bill Maris, told me this:

As a company, Google is interested in reducing all aspects of its environmental footprint. As a firm, Google Ventures is interested in contributing to this effort both on Google’s behalf and for the benefit of positive global impact. While petroleum does not constitute a large percentage of Google’s emission profile, we are enthusiastic about supporting technologies that can help us economically reduce our carbon footprint while simultaneously contributing to our domestic energy security.

How do you think Google could use biomass and biofuel projects for its business?

Image courtesy of eutrofication&hypoxia.

4 Responses to “What’s up with Google and biomass power?”

  1. Hi Katie,

    We are strong believers in “adaptive technology” which essentially is taking the best of what is already known to work, updating it with modern materials (where appropriate) and blending it with state of the art ancillaries such as communications and controls (again, where appropriate).

    Gasification for example is “old tech” first patented in 1788, yet is still to meet its full potential. Despite exciting advances being displayed in the late 19th & early 20th century’s with the technology making in roads into power, metallurgy, water pumping (with pumps that shifted 180 tons a minute, and ran for decades) and plans for innovative shipboard propulsion that did away with propellers. It was pushed aside by cheap oil and the convenience of petroleum fuels, briefly resurrected again in the second world war when there where shortages of these.

    Today well designed system are modular and therefore scalable, efficient at converting diverse solid organic materials from diffuse sources scattered across a region into a uniform, convenient form and has low or zero problematic emissions compared to straight combustion.

    Now for the Google angle…imagine within a given geographic region there is enough biomass (from waste, Ag-residues, management of environmental plantings or plantations etc) to operate 1000 x 100kWe gasifier power plants that are linked to the grid, effectively a “broad acre” 100MW power plant. Each system is managed either collectively by employed crews or individually by farmers/business owners. However they are controlled remotely over the internet by the utility using “smart grid” technology with which they can be brought up to full power or back to idle depending on electricity demand (leveling the output of wind farms for example). The individual managers only need to ensure routine maintenance and fuel supplies are maintained.

    There are too many threads of this weave for a short post, but the implications are profound across so many areas from socioeconomic through environmental, a true “enabling technology”.


  2. Actually it is about time, biomass is “stored solar” and as such the most flexible renewable energy source. The tech to access it is available in every country and generates permanent local jobs, not just jobs for the lowest paid and most exploited as for many “high tech” solutions. In Australia innovative developments with gasification will allow high efficiency, low cost plants able to form distributed power networks at farm and small commercial scales, cumulatively capable of generating gigawatts of power.