We've written before about Google's investments in a wide range of green energy companies, including wind, solar, and geothermal plants. At this week's annual shareholder's meeting, CEO Larry Page announced a new R&D team charged with capitalizing on those investments and Google's own cleantech intellectual property. These moves suggest the search and software giant is ramping up its efforts to develop its own clean technology in conjunction with its partners to bring that energy to market at efficiency and scale.
Google's energy investments have always been complicated, spread between philanthropy and business, trying to be responsible to both shareholders and the planet. On one hand, Google wants to take the long view, identifying genuinely transformative possibilities in energy generation and transmission and securing its own high-energy-needs future. On the other hand, the company is looking for places where it can make an immediate technological impact and generate a solid return on its investment.
"We spend most of our time on search and advertising," Page said, but "to people outside the company, what's more interesting is 'what is the latest crazy thing that Google did?'"
"For us, those things are interesting, too, but it tends to be three people somewhere in the company," he noted. "We're not betting the farm on any of those things." In the case of renewable energy, Google's new hires seem to indicate it will be five people somewhere in the company, but their work is more serious than just engineers fiddling in a lab looking for "the latest crazy thing." In other words, it isn't like a driverless car that may or may not appear in the indefinite future, but a serious industry that Google's approaching with urgency.
The ultimate goal is eminently practical: "RE < C," Google's long-established project to make renewable energy cheaper than coal. The urgency comes in the addendum to that formula: "Within a few years."
To that end, Google has advertised five new positions in its Renewable Energy Engineering wing in Mountain View. One will be charged with managing Google's own energy usage to help keep the company cost-efficient and carbon-neutral. The other four spots are much more mechanical-engineering heavy than the typical Google hires. These are more interesting.
The three-person renewable energy engineering team will be responsible for both evaluating and recommending investments for the company and in developing new technologies. There's a head of renewable energy engineering to lead the team, an engineer specializing in early-stage technology and prototyping, and a mechanical engineer who heads up design and manufacturing.
The key phrase throughout the advertised positions is "utility-scale." The language of the mechanical engineer advertisement is especially revealing: "You will not be designing laboratory experiments; you will be designing useful systems that must deliver cost-effective results in the real world." This isn't pie-in-the-sky R&D. This is about products.
I asked Google spokesperson Parag Chokshi if it would be fair to say that Google may soon be playing a more active role with its clean energy partners than just capital support. "We haven't changed our strategy," Chokshi said, while noting that Google doesn't typically comment on the specifics of its hiring strategy. "In fact, we have and continue to work closely with our partners... [both] the renewable energy projects in which we have invested, and with the co-investors who have joined us in investing in those projects."
In April, Rick Needham, Google's Director of Green Business Operations and Strategy, told Fast Company that Google's energy approach was both investment- and technology-driven: "We want to have an impact on the scale of the project, and an impact because of the technology being deployed." Large-scale projects are "the proof point of technology on a scale that allows those technologies to be financed and deployed at other locations."
As new CEO, Larry Page is under pressure to deliver something big. Recently, Malcolm Gladwell argued (in his typically contrarian fashion) that the Internet "search solves problems that aren't really problems":
Can we make a better Google or Bing? Yeah; sure we can. But it solves a problem that isn't really a problem. You cannot point to any area of intellectual activity or innovation that is today being compromised or hamstrung by their lack of access to search technology. Can we honestly go to some scientist to say that the reason you haven't cured cancer is because you don't have access to some information about cancer research? No!
There isn't a problem that's any bigger or more real than generating renewable energy and bringing it to market. If Google can find big ways in just the next few years to solve only a part of that puzzle, turning Google's energy wing into a business remotely as robust as its search and software core, then Page will have delivered something big indeed.
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