Google Takes an Interest in Solar Energy

In this weekly segment, Jason will take a look at Google’s various business vendors with an eye towards who it will help in the long run and what the bottom line is. Is Google an evil empire? Read on as Jason takes a look.

If I had the inclination, I think I could turn investigating all of the pies Google has its fingers in into a full time job. I’m not sure it would pay the rent, but it sure would keep me busy. This week’s installment of “Google: Good or evil?” is centered around their recent mammoth investment (169 million USD) into BrightSource Energy and the ramping up of their research into solar power.

Through a patented design (A “Heliostat control scheme using cameras”), Google is looking to make solar energy cheaper than coal. Here’s how it works thus far: The largest solar tower in the world(450 feet tall!) in the Mojave Desert is sitting in the center of 173,000 heliostats (basically a mirror which turns to reflect sunlight towards a stationary target) that are controlled by a computer inside the tower. The computer fine-tunes the mirrors via use remote-controlled actuators on the heliostats, and determines the most efficient angle through the use of cameras on the tower itself.

All of those mirrors reflect light into a receiver atop the tower, which converts the energy into steam. The steam is then pumped down into a traditional turbine and generator, where it is turned into electricity. This facility is slated to generate 392MW of solar energy when it’s fully functional some time in 2013. Google’s blog states that it’s the equivalent of taking 95,000 cars off the road for the lifetime of the planet. That’s huge!

These all seem like good things. It leaves me with a couple questions, though. First, what are they intending to do with this power? Sell it? Google’s been notoriously bad at introducing their own products to market (Nexus One, anyone?), so I’m wondering how they’re going to muscle into the energy market.

Another thing I’m wondering is why Google’s pouring this amount of money into this particular technology instead of applying their considerable prowess into existing solar solutions. I’m not sure we’ll ever know really. I’d speculate that it was cheaper in the long run for Google to invest in and make their own an existing solution rather than work within a corporate mold they didn’t like, or pay royalties for a product they didn’t make. That in itself doesn’t make them evil; pretentious maybe.

Of course, when you really strive to be (and often ARE) the best at whatever you do, how pretentious is it to want to do most things yourself?

Lest we forget, I should mention that this is not Google’s first energy investment; the company has also invested 5 million USD into one of Germany’s largest solar power plants, as well as numerous wind power projects on the eastern coast of the United States. This is all being done under Google’s new subsidiary: Google Energy.

What do you think of Google’s accelerating interest in renewable energy? Let me know in the comments.

[ CORRECTION: Since we originally published this story, BrightSource contacted us with to provide some additional information, and to clarify some points made in the story.

The technology at the Ivanpah Project in the Mojave Desert is using BrightSource Energy’s proprietary thermal energy system. It used tracking along two axes with optimization software to keep the heliostats aligned, not Google’s technology.

Google’s stake in BrightSource is as an equity investor only; it is not researching or providing technology to the project.

The ISEGS will supply power to California’s two largest utilities--PG&E and Southern California Edison. BrightSource signed contracts with PG&E in 2008 and with Southern California Edison in 2009.]

Jason would like to live green through the wondrous powers of solar and wind energy, but has thus far only vicariously done so through reading and pretending to know more about it than he does. You can probably witness such things via his Twitter .

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