Over the past year, Google has expanded its influence in the electricity sector through an accelerating number of new business ventures, lobbying actions, and product announcements. Between 2008 and last year, Google tripled the number of energy issues it lobbied the U.S. Congress about, putting its energy appeals on par with its telecommunications lobbying. Google also released the PowerMeter last year, a free home electricity monitoring, web-based tool that displays information from a smart meter on a consumer portal. It has partnered with a number of utilities to offer this data to their customers.
This year, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved Google’s application to become an electricity marketer, which allows the company to buy and sell wholesale electricity like a utility in order to feed its power-hungry datacenters. The move follows the same strategy of other major power users, like grocer Safeway or consumer products maker Kimberly-Clark. But it also gives Google the option to sell or trade power down the road, and recent moves by the Internet behemoth suggest it plans to do just that.
But the company isn’t limiting its sights on energy opportunities in the smart grid. Google’s “green energy czar,” Bill Weihl, announced this month that the firm has developed a prototype mirror for solar thermal, concentrating solar power (CSP). Google has already invested $10 million in solar thermal plant developers BrightSource and eSolar. Now it may be moving to supply them – either directly or through licensing – with cheaper mirrors.
That said, claims that Google’s prototype mirrors reduce system cost by half are unquestionably overhyped. For one, mirror costs account for 5% to 15% of a heliostat thermal plant. Plus, Google’s technology is at least three years away from commercialization. So, it’s unlikely the company has outpaced more experienced mirror and glass manufacturers that are quietly pursuing similar technologies. Even so, if its mirror technology proves viable, expect Google to license it out – perhaps under terms that it can receives discounted access to the electricity generated.
Google’s collective moves invite further consideration about its energy plans. For now, it’s likely that the company’s primary interest will be leveraging data and computing power for energy trading. Expediting the addition of low-cost renewables to the mix only improves the viability of that market.