The question is, why?
"You've got to go out and take a stand," says Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO.
To investors who say the company is overreaching, and not focusing on shareholder value -- its core business is not energy, after all -- Schmidt says that "shareholder value in a company is created at the end of everything we do."
By that, he means that if Google focuses on creates great products, solving big problems and serving its customers, shareholders ultimately will benefit. Besides, getting clean energy right requires a lot of information -- and that is Google's business -- and, he argues, renewable energy will over time become cheaper than fossil fuels.
"Green energy, done right, is more profitable that the old kind of energy," Schmidt says. Google's a huge consumer of energy at its data centers. "Lower costs cause more earnings for shareholders." He spoke at the Wall Street Journal's Eco:nomics conference in Santa Barbara, CA.
Google released its Clean Energy 2030 plan last fall. It says the country can generate 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, mostly wind and solar, by 2030, and in so doing replacing all coal and oil electricity generation, and about half of that from natural gas. Google itself has venture capital investments in start-ups in solar power, wind and wave energy.
But won't the financial meltdown put all those plans on hold? "Change occurs when people are scared," Schmidt says. "This is the time to have this conversation, set out bold agendas and go for it."
Google says its plan would make the following reductions from today's energy and emission levels:
• Fossil fuel-based electricity generation by 88 percent
• Vehicle oil consumption by 44 percent
• Dependence on imported oil (currently 10 million barrels per day) by 37 percent
• Electricity-sector CO2 emissions by 95 percent
• Personal vehicle sector CO2 emissions by 44 percent
• US CO2 emissions overall by 49 percent (41 percent from today's CO2 emission level)
Much, of course, has to happen between now and then. A vital component of any clean energy plan is the smart grid, another Google project. The federal government must make it easier to build big power lines. "It takes two years to get the lines built and eight years to get the permits," Schmidt says. "I'm not making that up." A smart grid also enables big gains in energy efficiency. "You want to have a computer that talks to your dryer, and finds the optimal time to turn it on," he says. For more about that, check out a software tool called the Google PowerMeter.
Cheering on Schmidt at the event was Peter Darbee, the CEO of PG&E Corp., which is aiming to generate 33 percent of its electricity from renewables. (He didn't say by when.) "It takes the right incentives and stretch thinking," Darbee said. "The utility industry has not been known for that, historically, and we need to change."
Schmidt is an optimist, perhaps because he's watched Google go from a startup to a company valued at $100 billion (even in this horrible stock market) in about a decade.
"America is a great country because of our ability to solve problems and build great businesses," Schmidt said. "We can do clean energy and we can do it at scale."
Let's hope he's right.