In the past two weeks, Google has made two staggeringly large renewable energy investments: a $168 million investment in the Ivanpah solar farm, and a $100 million investment in the world's largest wind farm. We had a chance to speak with the man behind these investments—Rick Needham, Google's Director of Green Business Operations and Strategy (pictured in stylish duds, center)—to find out why the search engine giant has seemingly all of a sudden become a major clean energy player.
When Needham came to Google in 2008, the company had already made early-stage clean energy investments through Google.org (the company's philanthropic arm), but Needham spent most of his time figuring out how to make Google's own operations more energy efficient. And then the economic crisis hit. "The financial institutions which had been involved in this market pulled back or just frankly disappeared. We thought, we have the capacity to do this, we just have to bite the bullet and learn how to do it," he says.
Google's clean energy investments are very different in scope from those made by Google.org. Whereas Google's philanthropic arm often invests in early-stage companies working on technology that could one day impact the way we use renewable energy, Google Inc. invests only in projects—not companies. It's also different from Google Energy, which buys the power for the company's energy-sucking data centers. The projects Needham's group is funding are simply good investments, a way to make a whole lot of money for Google in the clean power space. When these projects sell their power to, say, the local utility, part of the returns on those sales come back to the project's part owner—Google.
So what does Google look for in potential projects? "There are two things we look at. One is that we want to make a good return on capital given the risk of the project. The second way we decide is, we want to have an impact on the scale of the project, and an impact because of the technology being deployed," explains Needham. "One reason we're looking at larger scale projects is that they're larger impact in and of themselves. The other thing is that they're the proof point of technology on a scale that allows those technologies to be financed and deployed at other locations." So when Google invests in a project, expect to see a lot of similar ideas popping up soon after.
We can see how these investment strategies have played out with the Ivanpah solar installation and the Shepherd's Flat Wind Farm (Google's two most recent investments). The Ivanpah installation will be the largest solar power tower installation in the world, and Shepherd's Flat uses a new turbine technology that thus far has only been deployed outside of the U.S.
Google is open to looking at more high-risk projects, too. "We're willing to take a calculated risk. For a riskier project, we would expect higher returns," says Needham. One example: last year, Google invested in the Atlantic Wind Connection, a $5 billion, 350-mile transmission project that could connect 6,000 megawatts of offshore wind turbines to the grid. If it works, the project could make building offshore wind turbines easier and cheaper.
"We certainly are deploying our capital to make good returns, but the other part is how we can help deploy innovative technology, or technology at a scale that can really move the needle," says Needham. So Google wants to make lots of money from giant renewable energy investments, which will in turn allow it to invest in even more massive projects, and eventually change how we get power. We should probably stop calling it a "search giant" at this point.