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Things are getting windy at Google.
The company announced today it will invest in the development of the Atlantic Wind Connection, a $5 billion, 350-mile backbone transmission project that will stretch from New Jersey to Virginia and have the ability to connect 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind turbines.
The line would run in shallow waters several miles offshore and enable offshore wind farms by first building the transmission capacity for the power generated. Winds are stronger and steadier offshore, where turbines wouldn’t be an eyesore — a common complaint voiced by those who resist wind farm construction.
Google has done plenty in green initiatives in the past — it uses Bloom Energy’s fuel cell technology and on-site solar to power some of its offices. In the case of this Atlantic wind project, the company says that its investment is both good business and goodwill.
“It was an opportunity that we saw that, according to our calculations, gave us an attractive financial return,” said Google spokesman Parag Chokshi. “It was also something that might be at a higher risk threshold than other companies would be willing to do, and where we would have an impact.”
Google estimates the capacity of the transmission line to be 60 percent of the wind energy installed in the U.S. last year and enough to power nearly 2 million homes. According to the New York Times, construction could start by 2013, and a 150-mile portion of the project from New Jersey to Delaware (costing $1.8 billion) could go into service by early 2016. The remainder won’t be finished until at least 2021.
Google is taking on a 37.5 percent equity stake in the development phase of the project, and the same goes for investment firm Good Energies. The New York Times estimated both companies’ investments to be about $200 million apiece in the first phase of construction.
However, Chokshi cautioned against “conflating” the cost of the company’s investment.
“It’s not some huge sum,” he said. “Overall our commitment will just be for the development stage. There will be a separate financing phase for 2013 for subsequent phases of the project, and we’ll reassess at that time whether it makes sense to continue.”
The transmission line was proposed and will be built by Trans-Elect, and Japanese company Marubeni has also taken a 15 percent stake. Altogether, Google, Good Energies and Marubeni hold a 90 percent stake in the project, though Google said more funding for the project will be required down the line in 2013.
“This new American super grid off the Mid-Atlantic coast will unlock an important untapped resource, creating the foundation for a new industry and jobs for thousands of American workers,” said Bob Mitchell, CEO of Trans-Elect.
Google’s green business operations director Rick Needham also pointed out the importance of this project for the region in a company blog post. His points were echoed by NPR’s piece on experts who agree that this project is solving a roadblock for wind power on the East Coast.
“Many coastal areas in the United States have large population centers on an overstretched grid but limited access to a high-quality land-based wind resource,” Needham wrote. “These coastal states can take advantage of their most promising renewable resource by using larger wind farms with larger turbines that can take advantage of stronger and steadier winds offshore.”
Importance and the grand scale of the project aside, it’s a little hard to parse what Google’s overall clean energy strategy is exactly. Google has made clean energy investments with its philanthropic arm, investing in eSolar via Google.org. Earlier this year, subsidiary Google Energy pledged to purchase 114 megawatts of wind energy over 20 years from a wind farm in Iowa. The company said it would sell the energy back to the grid for renewable energy certificates that would offset carbon emissions and help it reach carbon neutrality. Google Energy also received certification to buy and sell energy, which the company said it would use to have more control over its own energy costs. It also offers home energy management software via Google PowerMeter.
One interesting tidbit that Earth2Tech notes: The Department of Energy wants 20 percent of electricity in the U.S. to come from wind by 2030.
Update: Chokshi tells VentureBeat that Google’s overarching clean energy strategy is “to be good environmental stewards,” and that it makes business sense to do so. Many of its investments are about creating space in the market for alternative energy to thrive.
“We want to make sure that there’s a market for renewable energy because we ourselves are going to be customers for that energy,” Chokshi said. “What we’re really interested in doing is having an impact in the sector while also generating attractive returns.”