Why Google Gave Up on Green

Hoping to apply the smarts they showed in the online world, in 2007 engineers at Google decided they would save Mother Earth from global warming. The company concluded that renewable energy was the path of the future and created RE<C, a moon shot approach to make renewables cheaper than fossil fuels.

In 2011, Google quietly shut down its renewables program after heavy investments. In the current issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine, two of Google’s leaders of RE<C offer their judgment of why the program failed, noting that “not every Google moon shot leaves earth orbit.” Ross Koningstein and David Fork are both Stanford PhDs and Google engineers who worked on the project from the start.

They write, “At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope – but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.”

Koningstein and Fork said, “As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.”

As they analyzed the data available to them, the Google engineers said they concluded that even if the company had been able to achieve its goals, it would have made little difference in carbon dioxide emissions. “This realization was frankly shocking,” they wrote. “Not only had RE<C failed to reach its goal of creating energy cheaper than coal, but that goal had not been ambitious enough to reverse climate change.”

As they came to grips with the realities of cheap conventional energy, the need for dispatchable power, and new sources of energy to power industrial facilities such as fertilizer and cement plants, they write that the came to understand that “although the electricity from a giant coal plants is physically indistinguishable from the electricity from a rooftop solar panel, the value of generated electricity varies.” Utilities” – and wholesale markets – “pay different prices for electricity, depending on how easily it can be supplied to reliably meet local demand.”

For electricity, they observe, “the bottom line comes down to the difference between the cost of generating electricity and its price. In the United States, we’re aiming to replace about 1 terawatt of generation infrastructure over the next 40 years. That won’t happen without a breakthrough technology that has a high profit margin. Subsidies may help at first, but only private sector investment, with eager money-making investors, will lead to rapid adoption of a new technology.”

To succeed in actually reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., write Koningstein and Fork, “What’s needed are zero-carbon energy sources so cheap that the operators of power plants and industrial facilities alike have an economic rationale for switching over within the next 40 years.”