Google Foundation: Cleantech investing plans

The philanthropic arm of Google plans to invest hundreds of million in cleantech development with a key goal of making renewable energy cheaper than coal.

Sergey Brin says they are concentrating on three energy sources: solar-thermal, deep geothermal, and high-altitude wind; if he had to add one, it would be photovoltaic. He says that windmills are on a par with coal but are intermittent and they think it can be even cheaper by using high-altitude wind, through kites, which are cheaper to make than metal windmills. They’ve invested in this and solar-thermal. Deep geothermal is a bit farther off because it requires more fundamental research to get to scale.

Solar thermal converts solar power to heat first, rather than directly to electricity as in photovoltaics. Deep geothermal uses heat and steam from within the earth. High altitude wind power uses tethered airborne wind turbines. The big advantage here is that the wind is always blowing up in the jetstream and they are portable and thus can be set up anywhere.

Key quote:

“You can’t succeed just out of conservation because then you won’t have economic development,” [Google Foundation’s Larry] Brilliant explains. “Find a way to make electricity — not to cut back on it but to have more of it than you ever dreamed of.”

Smart grids and more efficient appliances and engines are coming. An emphasis on conservation is certainly important, after all, why waste energy? But the real answer is cheap, renewable energy and clean transportation. While I can admire the Jim Kunstler’s of the world for sounding the alarm on global warming and peak oil, they too often seem fatalistic about what’s coming, something which stands in sharp contrast with the Google Foundation’s determination to find solutions.