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Internet Friendly Google drops the axe on its internal renewable energy work
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Google drops the axe on its internal renewable energy work

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Google has shown a significant commitment to efficiency and renewable energy, using its RE < C initiative to invest in a variety of wind power projects and map the US's geothermal resources. But, not content to leave all the fun to other companies, part of RE < C involved work done by the company itself. Now, as part of its general cutbacks, the company has announced that all internal renewable energy work will stop, although outside investments will continue.

Google's efforts were probably well thought out at the time they launched, but they ended up being done in by a combination of a lack of relevant experience and betting on the wrong technology in what's a dynamic and fast moving market. The bet that made sense was that concentrated solar power would end up being a dominant renewable technology, but any reliance on water for power generation could limit its adoption, given that the best sites for solar facilities resided in the desert.

So the company took a two-pronged approach: work on the heliostats that allow mirrors to track the sun, and develop a solar-driven hot air turbine called a Brayton engine. The latter only got as far as computer-based analysis of potential designs, but the former involved Googlers building sun-tracking mirrors and testing them out. This is where the lack of experience came into play, as the report on the experience notes, "We learned that handling glass is tricky, and also experienced a stationary mirror module structural failure." (Perhaps the other initiatives that are facing the axe were suffering the ensuing seven years of bad luck.)

A number of different concentrated solar technologies could benefit from a better heliostat, but it turns out that the renewable energy companies were already doing a reasonable job of extracting savings—"Our cost analysis projected that our heliostat field would be modestly less expensive than previous approaches," Google concluded.

Meanwhile, the entire field seems to have moved beyond the need for a Brayton engine. Photovoltaic systems have dropped in price much faster than expected, making their economics far more competitive with concentrated solar. As such, Google has sensed the focus in concentrated solar shifting toward technologies that can continue generating electricity after the sun has set, such as designs that incorporate heat storage in molten salt.

So although RE < C wasn't misguided, its cancellation isn't going to have a discernible impact on the renewable energy field, since companies that specialize in this field were outperforming it. And, unlike many of the companies that are also suffering in this fast-moving and competitive market, Google at least has a profitable side-business to turn to.

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