Google Pulls the Plug on Its Green Energy Program

Google has decided to power down its 4-year-old RE<C  program, the company's ambitious initiative to make renewable energy cheaper than coal.

The tech giant included the news about its decision at the very foot of a blog on Tuesday -- archly titled "More spring cleaning out of season" -- that listed shutdowns of "a number of products which haven't had the impact we'd hoped for."

"This initiative was developed as an effort to drive down the cost of renewable energy, with an RE<C engineering team focused on researching improvements to solar power technology," said the blog posted by Urs Hölzle, senior vice president for operations and a Google Fellow. "At this point, other institutions are better positioned than Google to take this research to the next level."

Bill Weihl, Google's energy czar, also is gone, according to Reuters. The leader of the RE<C program left the company earlier this month, the news service reported.

Google has made hefty investments to advance solar power technology, in geothermal technology and research, as the company noted on an updated RE<C page on the Google website:

Over the last few years, we've seen a lot of progress in clean energy. We're excited that some technologies are so quickly approaching cost competitiveness with traditional forms of energy in parts of the US and the world. Power tower technology has come a long way, too. But the installed cost of solar photovoltaic technology has declined dramatically over the past few years, making solar photovoltaic technology a compelling choice for consumers.

In addition, we've reached a point in our engineering projects where we're facing new challenges related to our solar receiver design.

Then, reprising Hölzle's post, the RE<C page reads: "At this point, other institutions seem better positioned than Google to take this work to the next level. Therefore, we've retired our engineering work on RE<C and are sharing our key findings."

Google has been edging away from its bold energy initiative since summer when it announced that it would end its PowerMeter home energy management program by mid-September. Microsoft made a similar decision about the same time, then Cisco said it would withdraw from building and home energy management markets.

Despite the retreat from RE<C, Google said it will press ahead with plans to makes its own operations more energy efficient. "We will continue our work to generate cleaner, more efficient energy -- including our on-campus efforts, procuring renewable energy for our data centers, making our data centers even more efficient and investing more than $850 million in renewable energy technologies," Hölzle said in his post.

Paul Baier
, vice president of sustainability consulting at Groom Energy and a senior contributor at GreenBiz.com, called Google's decision refreshing.

"Financial justification for large scale, energy producing, renewable projects is challenging, even for cash rich companies like Google," Baier said. "Google will continue to make a material difference for the environment by focusing on greening its energy purchases (buying but not generating renewable energy), facilities (requiring energy efficient buildings), and data centers (requiring energy efficient servers). These activities are more achievable, fiscally responsible, and help drive demand. Leave the large scale renewable generation projects to the utilities and the government."

"It's refreshing to see companies like Google use the same financial thresholds for renewable projects that are used with other corporate investments," he said in an email exchange this morning. "Long-term environmental sustainability will only occur if the underlying projects are supported by reasonable financial returns."

Photo of power cord via Shutterstock.com.