Google launches major alternative energy initiative

(We’re on the conference call; live updating below)Google today has launched a renewable energy initiative, pledging it will invest hundreds of million in projects to produce electricity from renewable energy sources.

Most significantly, Google said it wants to produce electricity more cheaply than that produced from coal — which is the Holy Grail right now for most societies, which are struggling to find alternative electricity sources that are both green but also affordable. So far, there have been few such sources.

Several Google executives will be holding a conference call with more details at 9am. We’ll be updating with more, as necessary. Meantime, here’s the press release.

The newly created initiative, known as RE<C, will focus initially on advanced solar thermal power, wind power technologies, enhanced geothermal systems and other potential breakthrough technologies, Google said.

The program is separate and apparently more ambitious than Google’s numerous other green initiatives to date (see our coverage of its green computing program). Google also requested investment proposals for its RechargeIT initiative from start-ups with ideas for how to accelerate the adoption of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and “vehicle-to-grid” technology. Google said today it had reviewing more than 350 applications, and last week selected just under 40 companies in categories including “batteries,” “components” and “vehicle-to-grid” to advance to the next round of review. It said it will announce investments during the first quarter of 2008.

Meanwhile, RE<C is hiring engineers and energy experts to lead its research and development work, Google said.

On the call will be the following: Larry Page, Co-founder and President of Products, Larry Brilliant, Executive Director and Bill Weihl, Green Energy Czar.

In its statement, Google said it is working with the following companies:

1) eSolar Inc., a Pasadena, Calif. company specializing in solar thermal power which replaces the fuel in a traditional power plant with heat produced from solar energy. eSolar’s technology has great potential to produce utility-scale power cheaper than coal, Google said.

2) Makani Power Inc., an Alameda, Calif. company developing high-altitude wind energy extraction technologies aimed at harnessing the most powerful wind resources. High-altitude wind energy has the potential to satisfy a significant portion of current global electricity needs, Google said.

Updates from conference call:

Update I. Larry Page is speaking: Expecting to hire a lot of people. Tens of millions of dollars on R&D. Expect to see investments made with profitable returns (will make hundreds of millions of dollars in investments)
Why? Google has great expertise on designing large scale data centers which are efficient. Use that expertise in the energy area. Want to provide energy to more people. Over 40 percent of the electricity is developed with coal.
Solar Thermal: Plausible path for renewable energy. Starting on this right now.
Goal is to produce a gigawatt of energy within years not decades.

Update II. Larry Brilliant is speaking: is focused on trying to slow down the rate of climate change. The initiative is funded by, good example of how the business side and the philanthropic side work together.

Sergey Brin is speaking: For economic development to be possible in developing nations Google wants to develop cheap clean alternatives for energy. Health effects of the dirty technologies will be reduced with this initiative.

Q & A with reporters and others on the phone:

Q: What kind of products will come out of this? A: Goal is to create a gigawatt of energy in a year. That in itself is a great product.

Q: Scope of this effort, initially U.S. or Global? Secondly, will Google will be developing the plants themselves? A: Looking at the U.S. but also looking at other countries. Range of alternatives on how to structure this. Google will also be doing their own internal research.

Q: Is it completely or is it also Google Inc. doing the funding? There are a number of people are being hired, how will it operate? A: Investments in companies that have innovative technologies will be made by has a little less than 3 million shares of Google stock. Expecting to hire about 20-30 people in the next year. As they see technologies that need to expand they will make larger investments in those countries. Google has created a new sector called “Other” to cover areas such as these. Main crux of the initiative is that we can make energy cheaper than coal.

Q: How did this initiative come about? A: is concerned with climate change as well as poverty. Both are helped a lot by cheap clean energy. Google Inc. was concerned with finding clean energy for their data centers. They want to make the investments happen so there will be alternatives in the future.

Update III. Larry and Sergey both repeatedly stress the importance of capitalism in the green movement.

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