Bill Weihl

Green energy czar

Google's green energy czar provides some insight into the search company's unexpected move into renewable energy.

[Background: Previously CTO of Akamai Technologies; senior consulting engineer at Compaq Systems Research Center; tenured associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT; earned PhD in computer science at MIT.]

A SENSE OF URGENCY

"Some people go, 'Wait, Google, renewable energy—what?' Others say, 'Wow, that's the coolest job in the world.' I am the first person to hold this job, and it's still evolving. The goal is developing renewable energy not only for our operations but also for the world. Until that costs less than electricity from fossil-fuel sources, those are going to be hard to displace. So we feel a sense of urgency. As a society and as a world, we need to focus on getting real solutions much faster. Most businesses aren't focused on that. They're making decisions based on their P&L, not on 'We want that solution.'"

SOLAR PAYBACK

"We have solar panels on the roofs of eight buildings here, as well as carport structures in two parking lots—9,012 total panels. Until recently, it was the largest corporate installation in the U.S. If we can create competition among companies to build more solar, that'd be great. At peak, the panels produce about 1.4 megawatts on the local grid, which is enough to power about 1,000 homes. That's about 30% of the electricity needed for the buildings they're on. So the panels are not by any means covering all of our usage, but it's a significant chunk. The installation will pay for itself in about seven and a half years, and then throughout the life of the system, 25 or 30 years, we'll be generating free electricity. It was an easy decision to do this."

INSPIRING RESEARCH ELSEWHERE

"A lot of people are amazed that a company would choose to do this, outside the core business, but we think it's very relevant. We'd like to power our operations completely by renewables, and we'd like the world to be able to do the same. If we are successful, the energy business is a big business.

We've decided that we need to build our own group to focus on that long-term goal and work with companies to elaborate on some of the technologies and with national labs and universities.There is a real culture of innovation at universities but also a conservatism if you want to get tenure. Part of what we are trying to do is encourage those researchers to move beyond that.

Even if you don't always achieve 100% of audacious goals, you're probably doing better than if you set milder goals."

DRIVING INNOVATION WITH PLUG-IN HYBRIDS

"RechargeIT [an initiative to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions] was instigated a year a half ago by several people who knew about plug-in hybrids and thought it was a very promising technology. The transportation sector is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gases, and this seemed like an area in which we might accelerate progress very quickly. We've converted 10 vehicles in the company fleet. The plan is to convert up to 100 over the next 12 months, both with [Toyota] Priuses and [Ford] Hybrid Escapes.

If you come to work at Google without a car and you have meetings elsewhere in the Valley, you just go online, reserve one of those company cars, and wave a key fob over a sensor on windshield to unlock it. You need a PIN to get the keys in the glove compartment.

This program not only gives plug-in hybrids the kind of visibility that Google can bring, but it also provides useful data. We have monitors tracking when the car is charging and discharging, the mileage, the energy from the battery versus from gasoline. All of that data goes in a database and gets analyzed and posted on a Web site. So we can see the benefits."

LITTLE STRUCTURE, HUGE OPPORTUNITY

"This is a place that has remarkably little structure. It certainly has a lot more structure than it probably did five years ago, or even two years ago, but it still has remarkably little. That means that anybody can come in and if they have good ideas, they can get things done."

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